RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes have gone from being mired in a nearly decade-long playoff drought to a division champion armed with postseason experience and success.
Their first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators offers the chance to maintain that upward trajectory — or suffer the first significant stumble of that three-season climb.
The teams open their series Monday, with the Hurricanes facing heightened expectations after winning the Central Division for their first division crown since hoisting the Stanley Cup 15 years ago. They were in the hunt for the Presidents’ Trophy until the season’s final week.
“I feel like everybody’s hunting each other,” said Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour, captain of the 2006 title winner. “That’s our mentality. That’s the way we have to play anyway.”
The Hurricanes made the Eastern Conference finals two years ago as an upstart in their first playoff appearance since 2009, then won a Stanley Cup qualifier series in last season’s restart following the COVID-19 shutdown.
This marks the first time they’ve reached three straight postseasons since the franchise relocated to North Carolina in 1997 from Hartford, Connecticut.
Nashville is in the postseason for the seventh straight season, including a trip to the 2017 Cup Final.
This year’s group extended that streak with a late-season surge after sitting 28th overall in the NHL standings as of late February, winning 20 of 28 to close the schedule.
“We’ve been more or less playing playoff hockey for the last two months because our playoff lives were on the line,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said.
“So we’ve been playing like that and like you said, there’s got to be another level. Playoffs always brings out the best in everybody and the intensity and the passion in the game. I think everyone’s level, both teams, will be raised even more.”
The Hurricanes won the first six meetings before Nashville took the final two to cap the regular season.
“I thought we sent a good message,” Predators forward Tanner Jeannot said afterward, “but it doesn’t stop there.”
The Hurricanes know regular-season success doesn’t ensure anything. Last year they swept the best-of-five qualifier series against the New York Rangers after losing 31 of 37 previous meetings.
“I think regular-season success, you can kind of wash that and it’s just a whole new animal now,” Carolina forward Jordan Martinook said.
Nashville’s star has been goalie Juuse Saros, who posted a league-best .945 save percentage over his final 23 games. Carolina has multiple options with three goaltenders on the roster in Petr Mrazek, Alex Nedeljkovic and James Reimer.
The 25-year-old Nedeljkovic was second in the league with a 1.90 goals-against average, while Mrazek was sixth at 2.06. Both have matched Saros’ three shutouts.
Two-time All-Star Matt Duchene hasn’t lived up to the seven-year, $56 million contract he signed in July 2019 if counting by goals and points scored. The forward has six goals and 13 points while missing more than six weeks with an injury.
But Duchene does have 14 points in 26 career games against Carolina, including two goals in the regular-season finale.
“It’s good to put a couple in,” Duchene said. “It’s been a tough year in terms for me of being hurt and playing about 30 games. … For me, I’m just focused on doing the little things and playing the way this team wants to play.”
The status of Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin is unclear. He left last weekend’s loss at Nashville early and missed practices this week before getting work in Sunday, though Brind’Amour said he’s a game-time decision.
Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce and forward Cedric Paquette missed time this week as well.
The Predators plan to increase fan capacity for the playoffs to 12,135 fans starting with Game 3. Fans sounded much louder in the final two regular-season games, a boost in a season where seats around the NHL were mostly empty.
“Our fans are out of control right now,” Duchene said. “It’s great.”
The Hurricanes had been allowing about 5,000 fans, though North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper eased COVID-19 restrictions this week. Carolina is set to host about 10,000 to 12,000.
“It’ll make a huge difference,” defenseman Jake Bean said. “When we were in Nashville the last few games, it felt like it was the loudest we had played in all season.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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