When the NHL announced widespread changes to the divisional format in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tampa Bay Lightning emerged as the biggest winners.
No longer having to face their hardened rival Boston Bruins and talented but combustible little brother Toronto Maple Leafs, the pathway to a second consecutive Stanley Cup appeared clear for the league's reigning juggernaut. But Tampa Bay's biggest threat lays in plain sight.
Riding an eight-game winning streak, despite an atypical profile of a contender, the Carolina Hurricanes aren't merely content with being one of the league's most entertaining teams. The roster composition of the Lightning and Hurricanes present a defined contrast and a compelling thought exercise in team-building, and though the Florida Panthers are gamely in the mix too, punching above their weight, Carolina is building a strong case to lift the Cup this summer.
Carolina has achieved the ideal of balanced scoring, much like Tampa Bay, a quality that ought to serve it well against a powerhouse that is often defined by its lineup flexibility. Balanced scoring often functions as a utopian concept more than a practicality, but the Hurricanes can score throughout the lineup. There is a seven-point gap between Carolina's top scorer in Sebastian Aho (10 goals, 25 points) and its seventh-leading scorer in Nino Niederreiter (12 goals, 18 points) while all of their forwards are actively encouraged to create risky-yet-profitable chances. Carolina doesn't have a single scorer within the NHL's top 30 and yet it doesn't need to. If there's a new hero every night – Morgan Geekie, Jordan Staal and goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic all took turns over the past week – then it becomes an extremely difficult out come playoff time.
The underlying numbers support the thesis that the Hurricanes should have their eyes firmly on the Cup. Carolina ranks third in Corsi For (52.91%), sixth in high-danger chances (248) and seventh in high-danger chances percentage (53.09%), via Natural Stat Trick. Carolina simply doesn't have to sacrifice much defensively to play a high-octane game, and the eye test supports that as well.
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour was defined by his defensive conscientiousness during his playing career, winning the Selke Trophy twice. Brind'Amour has implemented two-way responsibility into his team's philosophy, while encouraging his defensemen to enter the rush whenever possible.
Dougie Hamilton's short-handed goal against the Red Wings is a prime example of Brind'Amour's tactics paying dividends. Hamilton picks off Red Wings forward Filip Zadina during a high-danger 2-on-1 chance in a tight space and immediately takes off in transition. Aho flies up the ice in support of Hamilton while the Red Wings struggle to track back, but he's only needed as a decoy here. Surveying the ice, Hamilton knows Detroit's last man back, forward Dylan Larkin, is ill-equipped to break up the resulting 2-on-1 and wires a wrist shot past Jonathan Bernier. Defensive responsibility has rarely looked this fun.
Carolina's ability to break up high-danger chances and turn them into immediate offense is one of its strengths and though Hamilton should be receiving Norris Trophy consideration, Jaccob Slavin is the real master of defusing opponent threats.
The above clip from a March 9 win over Nashville is a perfect example of Slavin's exceptional spatial awareness and nearly unrivalled ability to turn opposing scoring chances into high-danger looks for his team. Slavin doesn't overcommit to Predators forward Eeli Tolvanen and expertly places his stick into the passing lane to send the puck wayward. Staal tracks back, wins a key puck battle along the wall and the rest is history.
We'd be remiss if we didn't feature Andrei Svechnikov here. Svechnikov, like Staal 12 years before him, went second overall in the NHL Draft and is perhaps the lone Hurricane who fits the prototype of your typical star player. With the exception of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, few players have built a more impressive highlight reel. Just look at this finish against the Dallas Stars!
This year, it's become apparent that Svechnikov doesn't have to sacrifice anything defensively to try some audacious plays out there, and this goal by Aho defines his commitment to both ends of the ice.
In a potential showdown against the Lightning, the Hurricanes have to concede the edge between the pipes. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the runaway favorite to win the Vezina, and he deserves some down-ballot consideration for the Hart, too. Yet, the 'Canes aren't without hope here. Nedeljkovic has quietly turned into a revelation, boasting a 2.08 GAA and .950 save percentage over an admittedly small sample size of nine games, while James Reimer and Petr Mrazek have been stellar throughout the year. No one in their right mind would suggest that any of Carolina's three goaltenders can outright counteract Vasilevskiy, but they will give the Hurricanes a fighting chance against anyone, Lighting or otherwise.
The playoff format ought to benefit the Hurricanes for several reasons. You can't focus on one scoring line, when they have three, their defensive rotation is sound with Hamilton and Slavin featuring as legitimate stars, and they've mastered transition offense — qualities that bode well during the laborious postseason. Tampa Bay's star-studded roster needs little explanation here, and their decorated lineup against a Carolina team that is defined by its resolute depth will be a fun contrast. It's not like the Hurricanes are devoid of star talent, but they simply won't be defined by the top of their roster.
Carolina can score, defend well, excels in transition and is rolling over its competition to date. Tampa Bay has earned its place as the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite, but it didn't escape imminent danger as a result of the divisional realignment. You have to pick your poison against the Hurricanes, and that is troubling for the rest of the NHL.
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