Hurricanes vs. Lightning series preview

Gregg Forwerck / National Hockey League / Getty

If there's one thing these playoffs have taught us, it's that hockey is alive and well in the south. The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning were involved in two of the most entertaining first-round series and now go head to head for the Central Division crown in a matchup hardly lacking in star power.

Tampa is playing its best hockey when it matters most, but Carolina seems poised to make the jump to legitimate Cup contender. Do the Lightning need to #TakeWarning, or is it merely an empty threat from a Hurricanes team that floundered when the going got tough in each of the last two postseasons?

1. Hurricanes (+110) versus 3. Lightning (-130)

Overall

HURRICANES STAT LIGHTNING
36-12-8 Record 36-17-3
4-3-1 H2H 4-3-1
53.89 (7th) xGF%* 53.22 (10th)
54.96 (2nd) CF%* 53.12 (7th)
54.37 (6th) HDCF%* 51.91 (11th)
7.21 (28th) SH%* 8.34 (14th)
.935 (2nd) SV%* .921 (10th)
25.6 (2nd) PP% 22.2 (9th)
85.2 (3rd) PK% 84.2 (4th)

*Five-on-five

Head-to-head

DATE HOME-AWAY xG* CF%* HDCF* GOALIES
1/28 CAR 1 - TB 0 OT 2.58 - 3.62 47.99 - 52.01 11 - 16 Mrazek - Vasilevskiy
2/20 CAR 4 - TB 0 3.13 - 3.21 54.85 - 45.15 12 - 15 Nedeljkovic - Vasilevskiy
2/22 CAR 2 - TB 4 2.32 - 3.05 47.75 - 52.25 11 - 9 Reimer - Vasilevskiy
2/24 TB 3 - CAR 0 2.09 - 1.49 49.11 - 50.89 8 - 6 Vasilevskiy - Nedeljkovic
2/25 TB 3 - CAR 1 0.87 - 1.99 42.92 - 57.08 3 - 8 McElhinney - Reimer
3/27 CAR 4 - TB 3 1.79 - 2.05 45.03 - 54.97 6 - 11 Reimer - Vasilevskiy
4/19 TB 3 - CAR 2 OT 2.1 - 1.25 57.37 - 42.63 13 - 6 Vasilevskiy - Mrazek
4/20 TB 1 - CAR 4 1.04 - 2.39 40.39 - 59.61 2 - 10 Vasilevskiy - Nedeljkovic

*All strengths

It's hard to gauge just how much stock to put into the Lightning's regular-season stats or their eight head-to-head meetings with the Hurricanes, because Nikita Kucherov didn't play at all. On the other side, Teuvo Teravainen also missed all eight for Carolina, which at least slightly mitigates Kucherov's absence.

Carolina should be worried about how good Kucherov looked in the first round - he recorded three goals and eight assists for a league-leading 11 points. He made massive contributions on the power play right away in Game 1, though there was also an element of rust as he posted an expected goals percentage of just 44 through the first three contests. He got his legs under him for the second half of the series, pushing that number to 73% in the final three games. A fresh and in-form Kucherov spells danger for the Hurricanes.

His offensive exploits were obviously a driving force behind Tampa's success in Round 1, with seven of his 11 points coming on the power play. The Lightning relied heavily on the man advantage against the Florida Panthers, scoring an absurd eight goals on 20 opportunities (40%). However, it's unlikely they replicate that sort of success against the Hurricanes.

The penalty kill was the Achilles' heel for the Panthers this season, and it was a definite strength for the Hurricanes. Carolina finished third during the regular season with a terrific 85.2% success rate and upped that number to 88.5% in Round 1, killing 23 of the 26 Nashville Predators power plays. Special teams is an overall strong suit of this Hurricanes team, which also ranked second on the power play during the regular season and could be a real difference-maker in this series against a Tampa penalty kill that was significantly underwhelming - 72.7% - in the first round.

Also aiding the Lightning's red-hot power play was Florida's miserable goaltending situation. Sergei Bobrovsky remained a problem and Chris Driedger turned into a pumpkin. Here's how the pair ranked in GSAA and GSAx among the 20 goalies to suit up in the first round:

RANK GOALIE GSAA
18 Chris Driedger -2.8
19 Sergei Bobrovsky -5.05
20 Tristan Jarry -6.13
RANK GOALIE GSAx
17 Chris Driedger -2.89
18 Jordan Binnington -2.9
19 Sergei Bobrovsky -5.58
20 Tristan Jarry -6.72

Goaltending is a strength for the Hurricanes, who match up incredibly well with the Lightning thanks to Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek. It's Nedeljkovic's crease to lose, and he got the better of Andrei Vasilevskiy in the regular season. In three starts against Tampa, he saved 4.82 goals above expected, stopping 75 of 78 shots.

It wasn't just against the Lightning that Nedeljkovic excelled, either, as he ranked fifth in GSAA and third in GSAx this season. Vasilevskiy ranked third and fourth, respectively, but also played nearly double the number of games. When you average it out, Nedeljkovic posted considerably better marks in both GSAA/60 and GSAx/60. Goaltending is a key in the playoffs, and Tampa's perceived edge in this series might not actually be an edge at all.

Nedeljkovic was solid in Round 1, but this is a step up in class against a Lightning team with elite scoring and high-end talent. Tampa doesn't necessarily generate a ton of chances but scores a lot given its quality up front. The same can be said of the Hurricanes, though, who feature elite offensive talent backed by quality depth.

Carolina is the better of the two teams at driving play. The Hurricanes were among the league leaders in xGF%, CF%, and HDCF% in the regular season, and they didn't miss a beat in the first round, managing 55.01% of the expected goal share. Tampa's numbers paled in comparison, as it posted a 45.4% mark in six games against the Panthers, but the quality of opponent certainly has to be taken into consideration.

The Hurricanes need to improve when it comes to chance conversion. They ranked 28th in five-on-five shooting percentage this season at 7.21, and that number actually dropped to 6.74 in the first round. Juuse Saros was a big part of that, but Vasilevskiy can be just as stingy.

With everyone in the lineup and a series under their belt, the Lightning have to be considered the slight favorites here, but not to the extent the line suggests. Home ice is massive for the Hurricanes, who were 20-3-5 at PNC Arena in the regular season - including 3-1 against Tampa - and a perfect 3-0 in Round 1. Even shy of full capacity, the building was deafening against the Predators, and being able to control the matchups against the Lightning's elite playmakers is massive for Rod Brind'Amour.

This series will showcase some of the best the league has to offer, and though the defending champions look the part once again, there's a clear path to success for Carolina in this series. If the Hurricanes can take fewer penalties, remain efficient on special teams, and not lose the goaltending matchup, they will reach the Stanley Cup semifinals for the second time in three years.

Pick: Hurricanes (+110)

Alex Moretto is theScore's supervising editor of sports betting. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.

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Hurricanes vs. Lightning series preview
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