As the Carolina Hurricanes’ first ever playoff series against the Nashville Predators draws closer, we continue to break down the opponent and the challenges they present. Who better to help us do that than our SB Nation counterparts?
We caught up with On the Forecheck editor Kate Rice and her team to ask five questions about Nashville heading into this series, check out their answers below:
1. The Hurricanes went 6-2-0 in the regular-season series. What went wrong for the Predators there, and what adjustments do they need to make here?
Nashville has maintained some of its characteristic stingy defensive qualities, forcing many games into low-scoring affairs by sacrificing quantity against in order to limit quality. And at 5 on 5, it has worked fine, but this team isn’t an offensive powerhouse, so the goaltender ends up shouldering a lot of the weight.
Nashville held its own at even strength for the most part, but special teams torpedoed their chances in the meaningful games of the series (games 1-6). Nobody has had a hotter second half of goaltending than Juuse Saros, who sits in the top five in most year-end goaltending metrics, but he’s been in the bottom 10 for PK performance, and the Nashville power play has faltered once again. If there’s a bright spot, the Predators were able to start creating chances while shorthanded, but they’ll need to start converting more power plays and playing better defense on the penalty kill to even have a chance. Hitting a hot streak of scoring would also be gladly welcomed.
2. Beyond the usual suspects and stars for Nashville, who are some players that Hurricanes fans should have their eyes on in this series? Who’s one player that needs to play well for the Predators to win this series?
Saying “Juuse Saros” is the easy answer for who the Predators need to play well for them to win this series, but it’s also the best answer I have. The Predators squeaked into the playoffs thanks to weeks of otherworldly performance from Saros; without him playing at that level, this isn’t even a playoff team. If he can clean up his performance on the penalty kill, the Preds have a chance, but otherwise, this matchup is a bad one for them. The Hurricanes are a fast, skilled team that’s capable of scoring, and the Preds’ skaters haven’t really had an answer for them through most of the season.
The slightly harder answer is that if the Preds can get anything approaching $8M hockey from either Ryan Johansen or Matt Duchene, they’ll be in much better shape than otherwise. Johansen was hugely impactful in the Preds’ 2017 upset of the Chicago Blackhawks and also played a big role in their second-round victory over the St. Louis Blues before getting injured in the conference finals. 2017 Playoffs Ryan Johansen would be a fantastic addition to this Preds team.
As it is, the Preds’ surprise good performances this season have come from players like new acquisition Luke Kunin and rookie Tanner Jeannot. Jeannot in particular has been a genuinely fun discovery; he’s a fourth-line player who hits hard, but he can also play hockey competently at the NHL level, and he’s notched five goals in the 15 games since he was called up, playing solid fourth-line minutes. He’s a great story as well as fun to watch —undrafted in the WHL, then undrafted in the NHL. He started this season in the ECHL and played his way up. I don’t think he’s capable of swinging the series on his own, but I think he’s still worth watching.
3. The Hurricanes and Predators are two teams that have always made sense as geographic rivals, but they never played often enough to make it happen. Do you think this series has the potential to turn Carolina-Nashville into a true, full-blown rivalry?
I hope it doesn’t, honestly.
In terms of fan reactions, the Predators’ sudden rivalries tend to come over bad blood, not just a hard-fought playoff series. There’s no real resentment against the Arizona Coyotes even after last summer’s play-in elimination, and I think the fanbase’s collective mood didn’t really sour against the Dallas Stars until Corey Perry cheap-shotted Ryan Ellis at the Winter Classic, months after the Stars eliminated the Preds in the 2019 playoffs. Meanwhile, the Preds have played the Anaheim Ducks three times in the postseason and won every series, but the Ducks’ sports-movie-villains playstyle has gotten them absolutely loathed in Nashville in spite of that, and the Preds and Minnesota Wild have never met in the postseason at all but there’s still some animosity over Ryan Suter’s defection.
It’s harder to predict what will make players hate each other, but one thing that definitely seems to do it is dirty hits and bad penalties. I’ve never really been able to figure out why the Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning don’t get along, when they’ve never met in the playoffs and if there was some incident it’s one that neither fanbase remembers, but for the most part hostilities seem to follow ugliness. I think a clean, well-played, respectful series—whether the Predators win or lose—won’t make either the fans or the players bear too much resentment.
4. What do the Predators need to do to win this series?
They need great goaltending, obviously. If they could improve their special teams that would be a big help—especially their penalty kill—but it’s possible to win a playoff series or two with a bad power play. The biggest thing they really need to do is to fix their offense and get real production from their top...anything. Top nine? Top six? Top line, even?
The Predators’ offense has been a source of huge frustration for years, and they’re almost certainly going nowhere without fixing that unless Saros turns in a Conn Smythe-worthy performance. I don’t want to downplay the Canes’ defense, because I definitely get offended by that when it’s the other way around, but the Canes’ defense can be good and the Preds can have been stifling offensive talent for years. If the offense clicks and the goaltending clicks, anything can happen.
5. What is your prediction for the series? Who wins in how many games and why?
I hate making predictions, and I’m not very good at it, so I’m going to go for the easy answer: Hurricanes in six. I know, I know, six is the copout number everyone gives when they want to make a prediction, but I think Saros steals one game and the Preds manage to score a lot of goals in another, but they lose four to a younger, faster team that has great communication between the coaching staff and the front office about the team’s identity. I’d love the Preds to win it all for Pekka Rinne, but I don’t think they will, and if they get bounced in the first round like I suspect they will there are definitely worse teams to lose to.
I’m sure our readers will be looking for some Predators follows as this series gets started, what are your On The Forecheck team’s Twitter handles?
Kate R - @statswithkate
Rachel K - @RachelKH79
Bryan Bastin - @BryanBastin
Nick Morgan - @_nsmorgan
Shaun Smith - @SCSOTF
Ann K - @AnnK_MamaOnIce
Eamon Smith - @GinandJuuse
Carson Cashion - @CarsonCashion
Jeff Middleton - @jjmid04
Eric D rarely tweets about the Predators themselves, but you can find him talking prospects and AHL at @OnTheFutureOTF.