When prognosticators made their predictions ahead of the 2021 playoffs, few gave the matchup between Nashville and Carolina a second glance.
That wasn’t without merit.
The powerhouse Hurricanes finished the regular season 16 points ahead of Nashville (the equivalent of 23 points in an 82-game season) and won the season series six-two. Nashville’s two wins came at the end of the season after Carolina clinched the Central Division. En route to their division championship, the Hurricanes left a trail of devastation in their wake. During regular-season play, Carolina earned a goal-differential of plus-43, third-best in the NHL; the Predators barely kept their heads above water with a plus-2 mark.
Experts from nhl.com predicted each first-round series in an article you can read here, published on May 14. Fifteen of the 16 surveyed chose Carolina to win the series. Seven had Carolina making the Stanley Cup final, with one taking the Canes to win it all. The Hurricanes, behind only Colorado, were the second-most popular pick to make the final. Only Toronto – the Maple Leafs were the experts’ only unanimous first-round pick – was a more popular choice to escape the first round (Colorado and Boston equalled Carolina’s total).
That was the overwhelming consensus among hockey media. Each of ESPN’s 16 predictors took the Hurricanes against Nashville. Our own Matt Larkin and Ryan Kennedy did the same in THN’s series preview. Only one person in those two groups had the Predators even making a seventh game.
And through two games, all seemed to be going to script. Carolina won both contests and did so while controlling the balance of play in them.
It would’ve been easy for the Predators to shrug their shoulders and pack things in at that point. We’ve seen it before from seemingly overmatched teams on the big stage. Hey, it’s just bonus hockey for them, after all. But instead, the plucky Preds fought back, winning both games at home and evening the series. They’re now in a best-of-three in a sport defined by its susceptibility to luck and chance. Not a bad spot at all.
So, how did they get there, and what can they do to take the next step and win the series?
The concise answer to both questions is Juuse Saros. Anyone who entertained giving the Predators a shot did so with the caveat Saros would have to steal the series. Saros had terrific regular-season numbers any way you slice them – traditional stats, advanced stats, whatever. He’s the reason the Predators made the playoffs. And he played wonderfully in Games 3 and 4.
But Nashville also played better team hockey over the past two games. Moneypuck.com’s “Deserve to Win O’ Meter” gave Nashville approximately 61 and 54 percent chances to win Games 3 and 4, respectively. Not overwhelming, sure, but not undeserving, either. For reference, the metric assumes average goaltending for both teams when deciding which team “deserves” to win. So, while Saros played (goal) lights-out hockey, the team in front of him also did some things right.
So, what were they?
Firstly, Nashville kept Carolina’s offense in check by limiting the quality, rather than the quantity, of their shot attempts. Per naturalstattrick.com, at 5-on-5 in the regular season, Carolina averaged a Corsi-for of 58.32 per 60 minutes and a high-danger Corsi-for of 12.11 per 60 minutes. The high-danger mark was best in the NHL.
In the playoffs, Carolina’s overall shot-attempt rate has increased – they have averaged a CF/60 of 68.71 at 5-on-5 – but Nashville has kept the danger areas mostly clean. Carolina ranks seventh in the playoffs with an HDCF/60 of 10.07. In Nashville’s two victories, Carolina’s HDCF/60 drops to just 9.00. Nashville has decreased both the proportion and the sum of Carolina’s attack coming from prime scoring areas. That’s greatly aided Saros in his duties.
Additionally, while the Predators penalty kill was abysmal in the regular season, it’s been great in the playoffs. Nashville possessed the league’s third-leakiest penalty kill on the season, at 75.6 percent. Carolina, meanwhile, had the league’s second-best power play. They scored at a 25.6 percent clip. Seemingly an even bigger mismatch than the series itself, right?
Well, so far, that advantage hasn’t held up for Carolina. Nashville has killed 12 of 14 power plays in the playoffs. That’s 85.7 percent, tied for fourth-best in the playoffs.
Compared to the regular season, two things are true. Firstly, Carolina’s power play was devastating because they generated tons of chances. Per naturalstattrick.com, they were sixth in HDCF/60 (23.2) and xGF/60 (7.04) on the powerplay. Nashville has nearly halved Carolina’s HDCF/60 – it sits at 12.76 so far – and have modestly dropped their xGF/60 to 5.38 in the playoffs. Both rank Carolina in the bottom five among playoff power plays. That Nashville has been able to do that to one of the league’s best power plays is massively impressive. Players like Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and Ben Harpur deserve special recognition in this respect. What’s also true, though, is such high-danger limitation isn’t outside the norm for Nashville’s penalty kill. In the regular season, Nashville ranked in the top third of the league in those stats. Nashville was so terrible on the penalty kill because they had the league’s third-worst penalty-kill SP (.824). So far in the post-season, Saros has a .900 SP while down a man. League average during the regular season was .863, so something in the middle of their regular-season and post-season marks should be expected moving forward.
So, Carolina’s vaunted power play is firing at below their season average because Nashville has done a great job at limiting their chances, but Nashville’s penalty kill is outplaying their season totals largely because they’ve gotten much better situational goaltending.
Which brings us to Saros.
While he hasn’t been the sole reason for the Predators’ bounce back, Saros has been a driving force behind it. He struggled in Game 1, allowing four goals on 37 shots. Moneypuck.com put his goals-saved-above-expected at minus-1.2 for the game.
Saros’ play since – including in a losing effort in Game 2 – has been simply sublime. In Games 2 through 4, Saros stopped 138 of 147 shots. At first blush, nine goals against in three games may seem a tad high for the “sublime” tag, but keep in mind Games 3 and 4 went deep into double overtime; Saros played the equivalent of more than three games during the series’ trip to the Volunteer State alone. In the past three games, Saros has a .939 save percentage and a 2.16 goals-against average. His goals-saved-above-expected is 1.69 in that time. Against one of the best offensive teams in the NHL.
So, that covers the why. The only thing left is the next step Nashville can take if they want to push Carolina to the brink of elimination tonight.
The key is to stay out of the box. Nashville tied Calgary for seventh-most times shorthanded in the NHL in the regular season. So far in the playoffs, they rank sixth in that respect. Carolina has taken the most penalties in the post-season on a per-game basis. This has been a nasty series, with several offsetting penalties and even 10-minute misconducts doled out to Ryan Johansen and Teuvo Teravainen in Game 1. Despite Nashville’s success on the PK so far, Carolina is too strong on the power play to be held up forever. And while Saros is a phenomenal goaltender, he can’t be expected to consistently turn aside 90 percent of shots while down a man.
The Predators must keep their heads despite the contentiousness to give themselves a chance to win.