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The Carolina Hurricanes are back in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2019, opening their series against the Florida Panthers tonight at 8 p.m.
Both teams took just five games to finish off their second round opponent, with the Hurricanes defeating the New Jersey Devils and the Panthers taking down the Toronto Maple Leafs. It marks the first time the Hurricanes and Panthers will meet in the playoffs.
Comparing the teams, both forward groups play with a lot of intensity. While there was certainly reason to be skeptical of Carolina’s offense entering the postseason, the team showed against the Devils that scoring isn’t as much of a concern as we may have thought, registering 24 goals in five second round games.
Sebastian Aho has led the way with five goals and 10 points, but others have stepped up. Jordan Martinook had a massive series against New Jersey, with three goals and 10 points over the five games, while Jesper Fast and Seth Jarvis have combined for nine goals (and each have eight points), and Jordan Staal has eight points in 11 games as well.
Martin Necas has been a bit quiet through the postseason overall, but he still has four goals to this point. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen have chipped in as well, each with three goals and six points.
The Hurricanes are also likely to be getting Teuvo Teravainen back, which is a boost. The winger hasn’t played since Game 2 against the New York Islanders, when his hand was broken.
For as surprising as Carolina’s forward group has been though, especially in the second round, Florida undoubtedly has more firepower up front. Hart Trophy finalist Matthew Tkachuk has 16 points in 12 games already, while Carter Verhaeghe has five goals and 12 points himself and Aleksander Barkov has nine points (while remaining one of the best defensive centers in the league).
Meanwhile, Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett each have eight points and have combined for 10 goals. Anton Lundell, Nick Cousins and Anthony Duclair, as well as Eetu Luostarinen (who the Hurricanes sent to Florida in the Vincent Trocheck trade), have all chipped in too.
Florida ranked sixth in the NHL in goals this year and while Carolina hasn’t had issues scoring in the playoffs, you have to give the Panthers the edge up front.
As is usually the case though, the Hurricanes' blue line is stronger. From top to bottom, it’s hard to find any holes in Carolina’s defense group. Even aside from being a unit that’s very sound defensively, the Hurricanes have also gotten seven goals from defensemen across their 11 games this postseason.
Florida’s blue line does deserve some recognition, though. Brandon Montour has also put together an excellent season, establishing himself as a legitimate top defenseman to really solidify the right side of Florida's top-four group with Aaron Ekblad. Meanwhile, Gustav Forsling (who spent a year as part of the Hurricanes’ organization in 2019-20) is a great skater who can provide offense while playing a big role. Radko Gudas also brings intensity and physicality on the bottom pairing.
However, the group isn’t as well-rounded as Carolina’s blue line. Marc Staal is undoubtedly playing too large of a role, while Josh Mahura is only trusted for 11 minutes per game. So while the group has some very good pieces, the Hurricanes have the better defense.
In net, both teams have seen a bit of surprise success. Frederik Andersen took the net from Antti Raanta late in the first round and hasn’t looked back, with a .931 save percentage across six playoff games. Coming into the postseason, Andersen hadn’t played a playoff game in three years and had a bit of a track record of allowing bad goals at important times. However, he’s been excellent for the Hurricanes and aside from a rough Game 3 against New Jersey, he's played as well as anyone could've hoped. Even if he did stumble, Carolina always has the option of going back to Raanta as well.
Florida, meanwhile, has benefitted from Sergei Bobrovsky’s surprise resurgence. After a largely underwhelming tenure with the Panthers over the last few years, Bobrovsky has been great in the postseason. He’s posted a .918 save percentage through the playoffs, but notably managed a .943 save percentage in the second round against Toronto. Bobrovsky at his best is a huge factor, and it seems like he’s found his game at the most important time of the year.
It’s an interesting matchup in the sense that neither of these teams were expected by many to get to this point. If the Hurricanes were healthy they’d have been considered a favourite but based on their key injuries up front, it didn’t seem as likely. However, they’ve managed to overcome adversity for a deep run and looking at the final four teams, Carolina has as good of a shot as any other group left. The Hurricanes were swept each of the last two times they reached the Conference Final, in 2009 and 2019, but this year the team is a legitimate contender.
Florida has overcame their share of adversity as well though. Led by former Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice, Florida rebounded from a disappointing first half of the year to put together a great end stretch to the season and squeak into the playoffs.
Then after getting in as the 8th seed, they completed a task that nobody thought possible in the first round, taking down the record-setting Boston Bruins. Despite being somewhat of an underdog in the second round again (cue the ‘We want Florida’ chants from Leaf fans), the Panthers made quick work of Toronto afterwards, winning all three road games on route to a 4-1 series win.
It’s a story of two teams who really didn’t seem destined to get this far, and it’s set to be a great series.
OTHER ARTICLES FROM MAY
Hurricanes set to face Devils in second round
Previewing the Hurricanes’ second round series against the Devils
Hurricanes shut down Devils for convincing Game 1 win
Hurricanes dominate Devils again for 6-1 win in Game 2
Hurricanes suffer blowout loss to Devils in Game 3
Hurricanes eliminate Devils, advance to Eastern Conference Final
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