This spring will prove to most who need it to be true that anything can happen in the NHL playoffs. All you have to do is get in. The Hawks are already pumping this narrative, preparing the ground for a less than stellar summer and the distinct possibility of a 90-95 point team next year. The Kings of ’12 are always held up as this, and unless the Sharks or Bruins carry it all the way to the end, most likely this year’s Cup winner will be touted to prove the unpredictability of the NHL’s spring ninja course.
But this isn’t really the case. If you were around in 2012, you’ll remember that the Kings were preseason favorites, and spent a good portion of that season fucking around and thumbing their own ass. They fired a coach, got their ass in gear in March or so, and romped through the playoffs, which a lot of people saw coming. Some favorable matchups didn’t hurt their cause either (hi there, St. Louis, Arizona, and New Jersey).
Carolina looks poised to be this team. They’re a game away from the East Final, and having already kneecapped the Capitals, they won’t have much fear of either the Bruins or Jackets, especially if those two are hurling themselves at each other violently for seven games. And it’s true that the Canes don’t really have any stars. Sebastien Aho is bordering on one, our love for Teuvo will be the main reason cited when we are hauled off to somewhere inaccessible forever by top men one day, and Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk are really good too. But there’s not really anyone here that NBC is grabbing to do those weird promos in the lights on ice in September, basically.
But yet, if you were paying attention, it was clear that the Canes are one of the best even-strength teams around. And they have been for a few years now. Whatever category you want–attempts, shots, chances, or expected-goals–the Canes rank no lower than #3. As always, it was finishing and goaltending that kept the Canes down, as has always been the case, and when evaluating who is the best team in the league you can’t ignore those factors.
But then the Canes got goaltending, they finished a little better, and since the middle of the season they’ve collected just about as many points as anyone, including the Lightning. As someone who wants to see the best teams in the later rounds and then win it, the Canes count. If they’re talent matched their process, they’d probably have a points total in the same zip code as the Lightning did. That talent would also boost a power play that was barely meh.
While the Penguins didn’t have the energy or desire to really work through a Trotz team, the Canes are perfectly built to do it, even if they rode their luck a bit in Game 2. They have a mobile defense and pretty much every point, and can get up the ice and through the Isles’ trap. Trotz teams only work when they have an abundance of finish to not be undone by the small margins he plays on, like last year’s Caps. It’s fine if you don’t control possession or attempts and keep things tight when you have Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, and others to maximize what chances you do get. When Josh Bailey is your #1 sniper, you are up against it.
Because they didn’t get Fleury ’18 goaltending, and they don’t play in Vegas where everyone wants a free trip to, the Canes don’t come with the ballyhoo of last year’s Knights. Except it’s kind of the same deal, just more sustainable. There’s no William Karlsson banking a quarter of the shots he takes or James Neal putting in one last year before dying. This is who the Canes are, and if they were to add another forward or two, or a goalie, in the summer (assuming Aho’s raise doesn’t completely wash away cap space) with the $30M in space they have or so, the Canes are going to be here for a while.
Of course, this being the NHL people will try and glean what the message is and copy. Not too many other teams are going to be able to assemble the talent on the blue line the Canes have, but an increasingly fast defensive corps would seem to be paramount in a league that keeps getting faster and faster. But the thing is, anything can work for a season. We’ll need a few years more on the Canes before we know if this is a real thing. My hunch is that it is.