NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A big night for Like Kunin means the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes will be seeing a lot more of each other soon.
Kunin scored twice and Juuse Saros made 21 saves as Nashville beat Carolina 3-1 on Saturday night to secure the Central Division’s fourth and final playoff berth. Erik Haula also scored and Mikael Granlund had two assists for Nashville, which has won three of four.
With Carolina already having locked up the top spot in the Central, the Hurricanes and Predators will meet in the opening round of the playoffs.
“Now we’re in the playoffs, and we just want to keep building, playing the way we play that helps us have success,” Kunin said. “We’re going to be seeing these guys a lot, so it was a good effort by everyone in the lineup.”
Nashville has qualified for the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. “We definitely earned it the hard way. We worked extremely hard to clinch a playoff spot.”
Morgan Geekie scored and Alex Nedeljkovic made 27 saves for Carolina, which lost its first game in regulation since April 12.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of secrets,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said of the upcoming playoff series between the teams. “We’ve got to get there first. We’ve got to get through that next game and then crank it up.”
Prior to Saturday, the Hurricanes won all six matchups between the teams this season.
“The way that we competed, the way that we played, that was one where you had to win to get in,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “You’re also playing the team that you are going to play. We thought we played a pretty good game here tonight. Things get elevated in the playoffs, but I think this is a good step for a first foundation here.”
Kunin scored the game’s first goal at 12:27 of the second period. From just inside the Carolina blue line, Granlund lifted a backhand pass to Kunin skating through the high slot. He continued in alone on Nedeljkovic and scored on a backhand on the stick side.
Kunin scored his second at 7:41 of the third with a wrist shot high to the glove side.
Geekie ended Saros’ shutout bid at 9:07 of the third with a wrist shot from close range. Late in the second, Saros denied Geekie’s shot from the slot at the end of a 3-on-1 Carolina rush.
“It was a playoff atmosphere out there tonight,” Geekie said. “We knew what they were playing for and we tried to match that. I think we’ve got another gear and I think we can take another step in the right direction and continue to get better against these guys.”
Saros’ best save came with just under 6 minutes remaining in the first, when he denied Jordan Staal’s wrist shot from the low slot, going left to right and swatting away the shot with his blocker.
Haula secured the victory and playoff berth with an empty-net goal with 1:03 remaining in the third.
POINTS STREAK SNAPPED
Entering Saturday, the Hurricanes had earned at least one standings point in the last 13 games, going 9-0-4 over that span, equaling a franchise record.
Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin played 7:13 of the first period but did not return to the game after the first intermission. The team announced that he would not return due to a lower-body injury.
Entering Saturday. Slavin led all Carolina players in average ice time per game at 23:17.
“We definitely took him out precautionary but there was definitely something he tweaked,” Brind’Amour said after the game. “A little bit alarming there for sure. This is exactly what you wouldn’t want to happen in these kind of games. We’ll know more tomorrow. I’m hopeful that it’s nothing too serious.”
Predators defenseman Matt Benning played his 300th career game.
Saros started his 13th consecutive game in goal for the Predators.
The teams conclude the regular season Monday night with a rematch at Bridgestone Arena.