The Tampa Bay Lightning will face another team that finished ahead of them in the standings when the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs begins Sunday in Raleigh, N.C.
The regular-season Central Division champion Carolina Hurricanes will be awaiting the Lightning for what shapes up as a compelling best-of-7 series.
“They are the defending (Stanley Cup) champions, and there’s a reason for that and we have to play our best to beat them,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said of the Lightning.
In eight regular-season matchups, both teams posted 4-3-1 records.
“We know the players, the personnel, their style of game,” Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to be a surprise to us. We know it’s going to be a battle.”
The Hurricanes outscored Tampa Bay 18-17 in regular-season games.
Each team needed six games in the first round, with the Lightning knocking out second-place Florida and the Hurricanes eliminating fourth-place Nashville.
“We’re in the second round, and now we’re playing another team that had more points than us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
The Hurricanes had to go overtime in each of the last four games of their first-round series, losing the first two in double-overtime, but prevailing in the final two games.
“That’s our game, battling,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said.
Aho, who scored a team-best seven points in the series against Nashville, said: “It just shows there’s no quit in this team. We have the confidence.”
Both teams appear to be in better shape on the health front than they were in previous clashes.
Right winger Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning missed all the regular season following hip surgery, yet he has returned. Tampa Bay center Barclay Goodrow played for the first time in this postseason in Game 6.
“We know what we’re up against,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said, noting the addition of Kucherov adds an element not present for matchups earlier this season.
Carolina’s Slavin notched assists on the tying and winning goals in Game 6 after he missed time with a lower-body ailment earlier in the first round. Winger Brock McGinn, who missed a few weeks late in the season, scored three goals in the Nashville series, and winger Jordan Martinook, also not on the ice down the stretch of the regular season, was praised for his leadership in the opening round.
Cooper said the Hurricanes stick to their style.
“They have an identity,” Cooper said. “They play to it. … They haven’t really strayed from it.”
The setting should be electric in PNC Arena, with the Hurricanes approved to allow more than 15,000 fans into the building. For the first round, about 12,000 were on hand for Carolina home games.
Tampa Bay opened the first-round series against the Florida Panthers with a pair of road victories. Carolina went 3-0 at home against Nashville.
After the Hurricanes gave up the first goal in five of the six games in the Nashville series, Carolina demonstrated its resiliency.
“We’re proving it over and over again,” Brind’Amour said.
Carolina has gone exclusively with goalie Alex Nedeljkovic in his first NHL postseason. The Lightning puts Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. He has clinched Tampa Bay’s last two playoff series — the 2020 Stanley Cup final and the Florida series — with shutouts.
The Hurricanes shouldn’t be overwhelmed by facing a reigning champion. In the 2019 first round, they stunned the 2018 champion Washington Capitals.
–Field Level Media