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About Last Night: ‘Playoff hockey, there’s nothing better’

The Carolina Hurricanes used a dominant third period, a great performance from the captain and a raucous PNC Arena crowd to jump out to a 1-0 series lead over the Nashville Predators Monday night.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Nashville Predators at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes got the 2021 playoffs started out just right Monday night in PNC Arena, beating the Nashville Predators 5-2 to take a 1-0 series lead in front of a raucous 12,000 fans.

The Canes played well from start to finish, running away with things late as Nino Niederreiter netted the game-winning goal early in the third period and captain Jordan Staal scored twice.

Here are some takeaways from Carolina’s series-opening win over the Predators:

Leading by example

In an encore to an outstanding regular season, Staal opened up the playoffs with yet another phenomenal game to add to his special year.

The team’s leader made a huge impact on the ice with his production Monday night, scoring twice to help push the Hurricanes to the win and a 1-0 series lead.

Staal gave the Canes a 2-1 lead early in the second period with an unbelievable individual effort, accepting a pass from Brett Pesce and splitting defenders before finishing with a snipe to the roof of the net past Juuse Saros in net.

He added to his tally with a crucial insurance goal in the third period, collecting a rebound and skating into space to fire a low shot past Saros and make a 3-2 game a 4-2 game.

Staal has been nothing short of remarkable all season, putting up big numbers that he hasn’t seen in quite a few years. His leadership off the ice has always been of note during his tenure as Carolina’s captain, but his on-ice play has been maybe as good as it’s ever been with the Canes this season.

“He was great,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “Just, again, it’s just what he does. He plays hard every shift. And whatever the situation, you can count on him. That’s why he’s our leader.”

Leaders exist to be followed, and it would be in the Hurricanes best interest to follow what Staal is doing. He’s one of the few players on the team that has experience winning the Stanley Cup, and he set the tone for the playoffs Monday night with his wonderful performance.

“He’s our captain for a reason,” Niederreiter said. “He leads by example on and off the ice. He’s made some terrific runs. He obviously won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. So, he knows what to expect. He knows what to do. We definitely want to follow his lead.”

Settling in and running away with it

The Canes didn’t necessarily start the game poorly, but they certainly finished it much, much better.

Carolina and Nashville were tied 1-1 heading into the first intermission and 2-2 heading into the second, but the Canes flexed their superior muscles and absolutely ran away with things in a dominant third period that showed why it was Carolina that finished atop the Central Division.

It started early in the third period, as Carolina came flying out for the final 20 minutes and was rewarded by Niederreiter just 2:26 in. Vincent Trocheck made a great move to fire a dangerous shot at Saros, who turned it away nicely, leading to a scramble for the puck behind the net. Niederreiter filled the space in the middle of the ice and was sought out by Martin Necas, and Niederreiter made the most of it.

Staal added his clutch insurance goal later and Andrei Svechnikov made it 5-2 with an empty netter, as the Canes coasted in the third period to the victory. The 3-0 final period scoreline obviously says a lot about how the Hurricanes finished the game, but the utter dominance of the final frame was special.

Carolina outshot the Predators 13-9 in the final 20 minutes, held a 6-1 advantage in high-danger chances and had a staggering 1.91-0.34 lead in expected goals.

Natural Stat Trick

“There’s gonna be tight matches. It’s playoff hockey,” Staal said. “You’ve got to be comfortable in those situations and trust in your game and not deviate from that. I thought for the most part throughout the whole game we did a good job of that. You could tell towards the end that we were starting to take over the game. Nino had a big goal for us to kind of get us going in that third period, and it was good from everybody.”

The way the Hurricanes finished Monday night was a true show of just how good this team can be when it is playing its game, and something that Carolina is going to want to carry over into game two Wednesday night.

A rather strong playoff debut

Rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic had a pretty strong performance in his NHL playoff debut, stopping 22 of 24 shots faced en route to the 5-2 win.

Nedeljkovic wasn’t perfect, but he seemed comfortable from the start and at times dealt with some chaos in front of net quite well. He had a great sequence in the first period to get around a screen and make a strong save, and had maybe his best save of the night in the third period between Niederreiter’s go-ahead goal and Staal’s insurance one.

His performance was strong, and it was particularly great considering it was the first playoff game of his young career. He stopped 3 of 4 high-danger chances faced, and he was comfortable between the pipes.

“He’s been doing that all year, and tonight was no different,” Staal said. “I thought he did a great job of handling the puck when he needed to, and then obviously making some big saves and slowing the game down when they were getting some zone time. I thought he was just solid the whole way through.”

All in all it was a stellar playoff debut for Nedeljkovic, who said it was just another game though “everybody was just a little bit louder”. He did a great job of limiting damage and staying within himself, and it paid off with a big win for the Hurricanes.

“You have to [stay composed]. Everybody does. It’s going to get chippy,” Nedeljkovic said. “Everybody’s got to stay composed as best they can, and just focus on the big picture.”

Playoff hockey is back in Raleigh

And while the performance on the ice for the Canes was great, it was maybe even better to see a playoff atmosphere return to PNC Arena.

Gone are the deadly silent bubble playoffs, as the Canes took the ice Monday night in front of a very, very, very loud 12,000 fans in the building. The atmosphere was obvious, even through the broadcast, and it’s a sign of normalcy that’s a welcome sight.

“That’s hockey,” Staal said. “For everybody it’s been a long time coming. There’s no better feeling than playing a big game at home with the fans like that. The boys were ready to go, and the fans were ready. It was just a lot of fun. Playoff hockey, there’s nothing better.”