With the Tampa Bay Lightning defeating the Florida Panthers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs four-games-to-two, the team now sets their sights on a franchise that at one time was another division foe of theirs when the Southeast Division was around (and was again this season in the Central).
The Carolina Hurricanes advanced as well by beating the Nashville Predators in a six-game series themselves, and they caught the attention of many throughout the hockey world. They are taken seriously as one of the organizations who can potentially dethrone the Lightning and claim what would be their second Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Before both clubs clash, the Lightning are going to have to do their homework on the strengths and weaknesses the Hurricanes posses. In particular, there are five players who will present a challenge Tampa must overcome if they want to get even closer to fulfilling their task of repeating as champion.
When it comes to the face of Carolina’s offense, Aho is the one that runs the show. Ever since he first stepped on the ice for them, he has become one of their top point producers. In fact, he has led in points every season he has played there except his rookie campaign in 2016-17 when he was second only to Jeff Skinner with 63 points (Aho had 49). This past regular season, he amassed 24 goals and 33 assists for 57 points in 56 games. His career high in points as it stands right now remains in 2018-19 when he accumulated 83 (30 goals and 53 assists).
So far in this playoff season, Aho has continued to be atop the Hurricanes’ point board. Right now, he is over a point-per-game with seven in six games (five goals and two assists). His speed and hands make him so lethal, and whenever he has the puck, something special is bound to happen for Carolina. He also just has great chemistry with his teammates, and knows where they will be based on some plays he can make with them. He is so valuable that he was even given an offer sheet by the Montreal Canadiens a couple years back, and offer sheets are never given out right now.
Lightning defenders are going to have to try and contain Aho the best they can. He is going to be in the middle of quite a bit of the offensive attacks, and if Tampa gives him great opportunities, he will take full advantage and burn them. He needs to be their number one priority throughout this series.
Staal has made his presence felt so far in the postseason. The captain currently is second in team scoring with five points (four goals and one assist). He had only been sixth in that category in the regular season behind Aho, Vincent Trocheck, Andrei Svechnikov, Dougie Hamilton, and Martin Necas by having 38 of his own in 53 games.
Also in the regular season, the 16 goals were the most he scored since notching 19 back in the 2017-18 campaign. If the league had played out an 82-game schedule, he would have been on pace for 24 goals (his highest since 2011-12 when he got 25 as a Pittsburgh Penguin) and 58 points (which would have been a career high). His game by itself is not the only important asset he brings to the club though.
One valuable part of Staal is his postseason experience. He has suited up for 102 games, getting 31 goals and 20 assists for 51 points. Many teammates on the Hurricanes who are just starting out in the NHL like Necas and Svechnikov can turn to him for guidance both on and off the ice. Staal was a key factor in the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup back in 2009 against the Detroit Red Wings. During that run, he posted four goals and five assists for nine points in 24 contests. He fit in with the rest of the core in Pittsburgh with other talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bill Guerin, and Sergei Gonchar among others. He was able to learn from some of the best in order to further craft his own game. Now, as captain of the team, he can bestow this information and guidance to the growing players on Carolina’s roster.
Staal has turned on his production in the playoffs and the Lightning defense is going to have to keep tabs on him whenever he is on the ice. He also can help make anyone else on the Hurricanes dangerous with his guidance and on-ice skillset.
One of the top defensemen taking the reins in Raleigh has been Hamilton. The Hurricanes have a skilled blue line as a whole with other players like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei, and Jake Bean. Hamilton, though, led the back end in points during the regular season. He totaled 42 points, which was tied for third on the team with Svechnikov. Specifically, he had 10 goals and 32 assists in 55 games. He continued to be a big factor for Carolina in the postseason as well.
Hamilton chalked up the following stats in the Predators series:
- Game 1: 3 shots on goal, 2 hits, 2 blocked shots, and about 21 minutes of ice time
- Game 2: 1 assist, 6 shots on goal, 4 hits, 2 blocked shots, and almost 22 minutes of ice time
- Game 3: 7 shots on goal, 1 hit, 2 blocked shots, and almost 37 minutes of ice time
- Game 4: 7 shots on goal, 3 hits, 1 blocked shot, and a little over 33 minutes of ice time
- Game 5: 1 assist, 8 shots on goal, 2 hits, 2 blocked shots, and a little over 24 minutes of ice time
- Game 6 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points, 1 shot on goal, 1 hit, 1 blocked shot, and 22 minutes of ice time
Hamilton since he entered the league has always been able to hold his own as a defenseman who could get his fair share of points. Originally drafted ninth overall in the 2011 Draft by the Boston Bruins, he was acquired by the Hurricanes from the Calgary Flames in a deal that sent forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin the other way. Carolina also received Micheal Ferland and defenseman Adam Fox as part of the trade.
No matter where he has gone, Hamilton always manages to play his role to a tee. Coaches can rely on him to take on big minutes as he has in the postseason so far this year. He gets involved however he can, not being afraid to get in the way of a shot or dishing out some hits. Of course, he also has no problem firing on all cylinders to try and net himself a goal like he did in Game 6.
Carolina’s defense works as a committee. Hamilton is not the only notable force on the blue line for them, but he should be given individual attention as well. Tampa’s forward core may or may not have a problem with him and the rest of the group on the back end when they step out there against them. Top talent for the Lightning have a task on their hands with him, and it will be interesting to see how they handle the threat he creates on the ice.
Trocheck, so far in the playoffs, has been a nice complementary player for their squad. In the six games versus Nashville, he accrued two goals and one assist for three points. For the regular season, he finished second in points behind Aho with 43 (17 goals and 26 assists) in 47 games. Ever since he was acquired from the Panthers last season, the hope has been he would further deepen the talent pool offensively. He was a couple seasons removed from his 2017-18 campaign where he totaled 31 goals and 44 assists for 75 points in 82 matches, as well as when he was named an NHL All-Star in 2017. However, the reason for his last couple campaigns were that he was dealing with a broken fibula. He discussed the injury with Matt Larkin of The Hockey News:
“Technically, Trocheck played NHL hockey in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but it wasn’t really him. He was, literally, a partially broken version of himself… The gruesome injury, sustained in November 2018… It was reported at the time as a broken ankle, but he describes it today as something far more serious. ‘Broke my fibula, pretty clean in half almost, and it took a while,’ Trocheck said. ‘Surgery to put plates and pins in, the whole nine yards.’” What was the reason he kept playing even though he was not fully healthy? The article by Larkin continues, “He shouldn’t have even been on the ice, but he couldn’t stay away. He was simply too competitive.” Now he feels that he is back where he needs to be.
The fact that Trocheck fought to play through an injury as difficult as a broken fibula shows the level of competitiveness he has, and that kind of mindset can rub off on the rest of a hockey club. The Lightning are a perfect example of this with Steven Stamkos. He dealt with his injury last season that kept him on the shelf, but he kept fighting back and was able to suit up for Game 3 in the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars and score a goal on top of it. That kind of determination motivates and fires up teammates to go to work and play as hard as they can. It is inspiring, and can be looked at as a reason Tampa won the Cup last postseason.
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Trocheck has filled his role with Carolina well. Some even feel it was a mistake that the Panthers traded him in the first place. I think he could very well find the stat sheet more often in this series against the Bolts. There is the familiarity of playing against at least a few of these Lightning players from the days he was in Florida. If he is able to channel his game from 2017 and 2018, he will carry a good bulk of the production for Carolina. The team has a lot of firepower in general, but has proven he can be one of the best in the lineup when he is on top of his play. Tampa defense beware, he will be ready to take them to task when both clubs start this series.
Nedeljkovic officially made the crease his for the Hurricanes this season. The 25-year-old who had only suited up in six regular-season contests prior to 2020-21 and stood on his head all season for them. He posted a 15-5-3 record through 23 regular-season games played and chalked up a 1.90 goals-against average (GAA), a .932 save percentage (SV%), and posted three shutouts. His showing this season put him in good graces with head coach Rod Brind’Amour and the rest of the staff. Other goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer received a good portion of playing time themselves, and Reimer specifically almost equaled Nedeljkovic’s 15-5-3 record with a 15-5-2 one himself. Despite this, Nedeljkovic earned postseason starts and has even been considered the best rookie at his position by some.
His impressive play has only continued during the playoffs so far. In the series against the Predators, he allowed a total of 16 goals against in a span of those six games. He had a 2.22 GAA along with a .922 SV% and a shutout (in Game 2). During that specific shutout performance, he stopped 32 shots. The Predators have a lot of skill all throughout their lineup including stars like winger Filip Forsberg, forward Calle Jarnkrok, and defender Roman Josi; all who were the top three for their franchise in regular-season scoring. At the stage of his career right now, to be able to blank players as talented as them on Nashville, speaks volumes for the role and the confidence that Nedeljkovic has right now.
The Lightning have no shortage of talent who can find ways to score. Nikita Kucherov playing in his first grouping of matchups tallied three goals and eight assists for 11 points in their six games with Florida. That is first on the squad in points. He looked like he had not missed any time at all for the most part. He came right in and fit back into the lineup like a glove. That is not even mentioning other contributions from Alex Killorn (four goals and four assists), Stamkos (three goals and five assists), Victor Hedman (eight assists), and Brayden Point (four goals and two assists) among others. Nedeljkovic will have a lot to handle between the pipes for this series.
This can arguably be considered one of the toughest offenses Nedeljkovic will have to help shut down. The Lightning, meanwhile, will have to see if they can intimidate him a bit through their offensive style, and see if they can throw him off his game. If he stands on his head throughout this series, he could potentially be a long one for the Lightning and their fans.
The Hurricanes have a deep roster with many stellar players who bring it every matchup. Aho, Staal, Hamilton, Trocheck, and Nedeljkovic are just some of the top names who best example the challenge for the Lightning. It will be a memorable clash between old division rivals, and it adds another chapter into the history of the two clubs.
I have been a hockey fan for most of my life, and have played the game myself for more than six years. I graduated from the State University of New York at Oswego in 2018, with a bachelor’s in Broadcasting & Mass Communication. Previous positions held include being a Sports Analyst for Oswego’s student-run TV station, WTOP-10; News/Sports Intern for WIVB-TV Channel 4; and Sports Beat Writer Intern for Pro Player Insiders.