In the North Division, the Montreal Canadiens kept their season alive to force Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. South of the border in Thursday’s lone U.S. game, the Nashville Predators couldn’t follow suit, falling to the Hurricanes at home and officially ending their season after a six-game battle as Carolina moves on to Round 2.
This one, a 4-3 victory thanks to Sebastian Aho’s game-winner, came down to the details. And overtime, of course.
Seven games’ worth of hockey packed into six
It took six games for the Hurricanes to solve Juuse Saros and the Predators, but honestly it kind of felt like seven considering all the overtime. Thursday’s OT marked the fourth straight game of this series to go to extra time. Between back-to-back double OT matchups in Games 3 and 4 (both won by Nashville at home) and short OT solves in Games 5 and now 6 (both won by Carolina), we got an extra 74:13 of hockey in this series.
Hurricanes’ quick draws lead to speedy OT winner
The Hurricanes struggled through the first half of this game, with momentum faltering at every opportunity and the wizardry of Saros stumping their every attempt to regain it. But few teams can turn a game around as quickly as Carolina, and we saw that on Thursday night.
Both the game-tying goal, scored by Dougie Hamilton, and the OT winner — a quick shot right off the draw from Jaccob Slavin, tipped in by net-front expert Sebastian Aho — came immediately off the faceoff, with Carolina winning the draws cleanly and letting their elite defencemen drive the play.
Overall, faceoff wins actually favoured Nashville in this one, 33-27. But Carolina’s quick-to-pounce game-plan, requiring details and discipline to execute, proved the difference.
Hamilton’s first goal of post-season comes at perfect time
Dougie Hamilton was due. Five games into Carolina’s First Round series against Nashville, the Hurricanes’ most productive defenceman in the regular season had yet to score a goal in these playoffs. With a league-leading 31 shots on goal this post-season to his name heading into Game 6 in Nashville, it was only a matter of time before one went in.
Down by two goals for the first time in the series, Hamilton’s fingerprints were all over this push for victory. His ability to keep the puck in the offensive zone during the Hurricanes’ second-period power play sparked a noticeable shift in pressure and momentum, and it was his powerful blast from the blue line right after — what would’ve been shot No. 32, had Aho not smartly gotten his own stick on it for the redirect — that helped make this a 3-2 game.
Maybe he was just waiting for the perfect pass — a stunning setup from elite defence partner, Jaccob Slavin. Or the right moment — late in the third period of a one-goal game — but Hamilton’s first goal of these playoffs, the 3-3 equalizer to push the Predators back to the brink of elimination, could not have come at a better time.
Saros almost steals the show
Once the dust settles on this series and the rink empties out, the Predators will face plenty of questions this off-season. Much of the season was spent studying this roster as they went from sure deadline seller to playoff contender. Will general manager David Poile now embark on the rebuild we all jumped the gun on mid-season, or was this post-season appearance enough to spark something more in what has been an underperforming core?
First on his to do list, however, is obvious: re-sign Saros.
After his red-hot play backstopped Nashville into playoff position in the first place, Saros was without a doubt the best and most consistent player for Nashville all season and all series. The busiest goalie of Round 1 faced 252 shots, and finished the series with a solid .921 save percentage and 2.78 goals-against average against one of the most powerful offences in the game.
The Finnish netminder (and successor following in the footsteps of the great Pekka Rinne) is only just getting started. Now with time winding down on his three-year, $4.5-million contract, the pending RFA is due a new deal and a decent payday.