RALEIGH, NC (WTVF) — There is a reason the experts are picking the Hurricanes to beat the Predators, and it’s a good one. Carolina has been the class of the difficult Central Division this year, and looked ready to battle Monday night in a hard fought 5-2 win in game one.
The Canes have elite speed and skill, and push the pace in a manner that puts pressure on the opponent’s defense for 60 minutes. It was that pressure that broke down the Predators and broke open a 2-2 game in the third period.
Vincent Trocheck’s one-timer was stopped spectacularly by Juuse Saros, but Nashville’s big bodied, third defensive pairing of Ben Harpur and Erik Gudbranson were unable to corral the puck behind the net and Martin Necas found Nino Niederreiter all alone in the slot for the go-ahead goal with 17:32 to play. A short time later, the Preds failed to clear the puck from danger once again as Roman Josi’s attempted clear of a rebound deflected off a body and down to the skates of Jordan Staal, who turned and fired one past Saros.
It was Staal’s second goal of the night. The Carolina captain scored in four-on-four action during the second period when he was able to skate past Josi through the Nashville zone and score on extreme angle shot with Saros shifting his body to protect against an expected pass. That goal gave the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead and completely erased what was a solid start from the road team.
The goal of the Predators going into game one was to go out and establish their identity; to be tough, physical and difficult to play against. John Hynes shifted his lineup around to in order to emphasize that going with Gudbranson instead of Matt Benning on the blue line, and employing both rookies Matthieu Olivier and Tanner Jeannot in his forward rotations.
The Preds came out flying and hitting in the first period, and the reinstated JOFA line, buoyed by the return of a healthy Viktor Arvidsson, provided an early lead when Ryan Johansen found a slashing Filip Forsberg for a beautiful, double-deke goal. It was his 27th playoff goal, 13 more than any other Predator in history.
Erik Haula continued his terrific play, depositing a Matt Duchene pass top shelf over Carolina rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic to tie the game 2-2 in the second and Nashville had to feel pretty good about its chances to steal game one on the road, just as it did for three straight series on the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017.
But the Hurricanes, at least for game one, didn’t back down from the Predators physicality. They buckled down defensively, showcasing one of the best blue line groups in the league, limiting the Preds time and space and completely neutralizing the team’s power play chances. Carolina became more aggressive, Nashville started playing on its heels and that’s when the floodgates opened. The quicker, more talented team pounced on its opportunities in the third, much to the delight of the 12,000 fans in attendance at PNC Arena, the largest crowd of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far.
Throw in six penalties and Nashville simply made too many mistakes, and spent too much time on the penalty kill, to put game one in doubt. Now the question is if the Preds can bounce back and make this a series?
History gives them even less chance than all those experts doing the picks. The Predators are 0-11 all-time in playoff series when they lose game one.
In order to buck that trend, they’re going to have to keep the physicality in the hopes of wearing Carolina down. But they also must clean things up defensively, especially in front of the net, and find a way to get things going offensively against the ‘Canes stingy D.
Hynes may have to consider changes to the lineup for game two as well. Matt Benning and Dante Fabbro would provide quicker options on the blue line. Brad Richardson and Nick Cousins would provide a little more veteran experience. And Eeli Tolvanen perhaps could be the answer to the Pres’ offensive needs, especially on a power play that was woefully inept in game one.
Hynes pushed all the right buttons over the last two months of the regular season to guide the Predators to their seventh straight playoff appearance. He needs to use that magic touch with his adjustments before Wednesday night.
Because what we saw in game one Monday was just more ammunition for those people that believe the Hurricanes are a Stanley Cup contender. And more reason for the critics to doubt the Predators.