The Nashville Predators will soon take on the Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-seven series in the 1st round of the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s not a matchup that favors the Preds, at least not on paper. Nashville only just recently secured their first two wins over the Hurricanes, one on Saturday when they clinched a playoff berth, and the other on Monday when Pekka Rinne had his near perfect ending to the season.

Prior to that, the Preds were 0-5-1 against the Canes and looked like they didn’t belong on the same ice.

The Hurricanes bring incredible speed at both ends of the ice, elite level goaltending, and top-10 special teams. They have a nice balance of youth and veteran leadership. They have a head coach who knows how to win in the playoffs. They have all the makings of a team that could sweep the Preds and not think twice about it.

But there is a path to victory for Nashville. Here’s three keys to the Preds beating the Canes in this playoff series.

Juuse Saros steals at least two games

The Preds will need their best player, Juuse Saros, to be their best player.

Saros is the overwhelming MVP for this Preds team. Without his incredible last two months, they don’t even sniff the playoffs. He will finish near the top of the league in almost every goaltending category and should be a Vezina Trophy finalist.

In the playoffs, goaltending is the only position that can tilt a series all on its own. Jonathan Quick for the Kings in 2012, Matt Murray for the Penguins in 2017, and Jordan Binnington for the Blues in 2019 are all great examples of goalies that carried their team to the postseason and then to a Stanley Cup win.

If Juuse Saros steals two games in the series all on his own, the Preds only need to win two other games using the rest of their roster. That may be a big ask, but Saros playing at a Vezina-caliber level is the only way the Preds even get close to winning.

“Playoff officiating” reduces special teams

It’s been a long running theory that refs “swallow their whistles” in the NHL playoffs. While some say this is just a mirage, that refs are calling just as many penalties in the playoffs as the regular season, it certainly seems that referees let a lot go in the playoffs.

Especially smaller fouls. Minor slashes and brief holds that get called in the regular season are not likely to be called in the playoffs. “Ticky-tack” calls are fewer and far between, leading to less man advantage situations.

If that’s the case, this creates a small advantage for the Nashville Predators against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes rank 2nd in the league in power play efficiency with a 25.6% success rate. Compare that to the Preds, who rank 24th in the league at 17.6%.

Meanwhile, the Preds’ penalty kill has killed only 75.4% of their penalties this year, which ranks 29th in the league.

The 2nd best power play in the league going up against the 3rd worst penalty kill? Yeah that’s gonna be a problem for the Preds.

But if the “playoff whistles” are in play, that’s going to reduce the number of potential power plays for the Hurricanes. The Preds rank 11th in the league in number of times shorthanded per game at 3.05. If a reduction in calls can get that number to around twice per game, the Preds have a shot at winning the series.

Preds’ 4th Line pushes Canes around

If you’ve watched the Preds over the last two months, you are well aware of the emergence of the 4th line with Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, and Tanner Jeannot, or Mathieu Olivier if he’s healthy.

Not only has this line been the most physical and energetic of the Preds’ forward groups, it’s been one of the best in terms of shot share and expected goal share.

In 120 minutes at 5-on-5, the Trenin-Sissons-Jeannot combo has generated 55.7% shot attempts for, 54.4% scoring chances for, and 62.2% expected goals for. In short, that means they’ve generated far more shots, scoring chances, and expected goals than they’ve allowed.

By comparison, other Preds’ lines haven’t been as efficient, especially when it comes to expected goals. Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson have 57.0% expected goals in 150 minutes. Luke Kunin, Calle Jarnkrok, and Mikael Granlund have only 41.7% expected goals in 239 minutes.

The Preds’ 4th line is one of the real keys in this series because of how they play the game. Yakov Trenin has enormous skill and speed for being a larger forward. Colton Sissons wins most faceoffs and has a nice two-way game. And Tanner Jeannot goes to the front of the net in the offensive end with frequency.

The Carolina Hurricanes, as I mentioned earlier, play with tremendous speed. They can skate faster than most teams in the league. Their top line of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov is probably the fastest line in hockey.

Sometimes the only way to stop a skilled, speedy team is by putting a body between them and their destination. The 4th line can do that very well.

Most teams don’t look to their 4th line to set the tone for the game, at least not if they plan on winning the game or the series. But the Nashville Predators will need the impact of their 4th line forwards to make things very difficult for the Carolina Hurricanes to get going.

— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —