There are two main goals at the end of a season in which a team has clinched a playoff spot or a division title: stay sharp, and stay healthy.
Saturday night in Nashville, the Carolina Hurricanes were 0-for-2 on those goals.
Luke Kunin scored twice and the Nashville Predators locked up the final Central Division playoff spot with a 3-1 win, their first win of the season against the Hurricanes and a result that left many more questions than answers for the visitors.
Chief among those questions: what is the status of Jaccob Slavin? The Hurricanes’ top defenseman did not play after the first period, ruled out with what the team called a lower-body injury. Even if it was nothing more than a precaution, the Hurricanes got a two-period glimpse of life without Slavin, and it wasn’t exactly appointment viewing.
From the start, the Predators were playing with enough jump for both teams. A penalty-filled first period was feisty from the opening faceoff, and the Predators looked every bit the part of a team ready and willing to play desperate hockey to wrap up a playoff spot. The Hurricanes struggled to keep up with the Predators’ speed and physicality all night, and the home squad was more than willing to run roughshod to clinch a postseason berth.
Alex Nedeljkovic, perhaps the Hurricanes’ most consistent player all night, made 26 saves, but he had no chance on Nashville’s first goal, 12:27 into the second period, when Mikael Granlund threaded a perfect pass to Luke Kunin just as Kunin split the defense and roofed a backhand.
Early in the third, Martin Necas had beaten Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros to the far side but caught the post, emblematic of the Hurricanes’ close-but-no-cigar performance. Kunin soon after doubled the Predators’ lead, when Saros caught the Hurricanes in a lackadaisical line change and sprung Kunin on a breakaway 7:41 into the final period.
Nedeljkovic came up big just minutes later, stopping a laser of a wrist shot from Matt Duchene, and the Hurricanes pulled closer on the next shift. Max McCormick’s shot attempt died as the result of a broken stick, but the puck went right to Steven Lorentz, who backhanded a pass to Morgan Geekie at the side of the net to break Saros’ shutout.
But the Hurricanes came no closer. The Predators’ effort was stifling, not needing to manufacture any momentum, while the Hurricanes couldn’t match the pace. Former Hurricane Erik Haula finished it off into an empty net to clinch the Predators’ seventh consecutive playoff berth, and set themselves up with a win in the first of what could total nine straight games between the squads.
The teams will finish the regular season on Monday in Nashville, then later in the week the scene will move back to Raleigh for the first two games of the 2021 postseason.