RALEIGH — Rod Brind’Amour didn’t have long to celebrate before being hit with the question: What about facing the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The Carolina Hurricanes had just clinched their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Nashville Predators, taking a 4-3 victory Thursday in Game 6 on Sebastian Aho’s goal at 1:06 of overtime.
Aho, getting position on the Preds’ Mikael Granlund in front of the net, got a piece of a Jaccob Slavin shot from the left wing to end it. The Canes players poured off the bench for another wild group hug, then went through the requisite handshake line with a Predators team that had shown its own resilience in the hard-fought series, twice winning double-overtime games and receiving a standing ovation from their fans at Bridgestone Arena.
Then, soon, the Tampa Bay Lightning question.
Brind’Amour broke into a grin as the Canes coach was asked about facing last year’s Stanley Cup champion and how the Canes would match up in the second-round series.
“You didn’t even let me enjoy it for a couple of minutes,” Brind’Amour said.
“You knew if we got through this series, whether it was Florida or Tampa (Bay), for me it was going to be the next best team in the league,” he said. “Either one. Pick ‘em. Stanley Cup champs or I thought Florida played great all year.
“We’re getting the Stanley Cup champs and we know what we’re up against. We’re going to have to be as good as we can to have a chance against these guys, especially now when they’ve kind of got their full group back. It’s a great challenge for us.”
And it could be a challenge for the champs. The Canes were the Central Division winners. The Canes will have the home-ice advantage and play the first two games at home in PNC Arena, where attendance will top 15,000 and the place will rock.
Granted, the Lightning looked impressive in beating the Panthers in six games and are more imposing with a healthy Nikita Kucherov in the lineup and with captain Steven Stamkos also back, rested and playing well.
Matchups? What about Canes rookie goalie Alex Nedeljkovic against the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who most agree is the best goaltender in the world?
But Nedeljkovic, 25, has seemingly played with a chip on his shoulder all season, as if hell-bent on proving he can be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. In his first Stanley Cup playoff series, he waged a back-and-forth battle with Juuse Saros of the Predators that was thrilling to watch at times as the two matched dynamic saves.
“He’s been unbelievable,” defenseman Dougie Hamilton said. “He’s got so much confidence. Just a quiet swag to him. I think that helps our team. He’s so calm in the net and plays the puck really well and makes huge saves. It’s easy to play in front of a guy like that.”
Nothing came easily for the Canes in this series. They allowed the Preds to score the first goal of the game too often and played from behind. They had some bad breaks, bad bounces. They lost the two double-overtime games in Game 3 and Game 4.
But they kept battling and did again Thursday in Game 6. Brock McGinn circled the net and beat Saros with blocker-side shot for a 1-1 tie. The Preds built a 3-1 lead on an even-strength goal by Granlund early in the second and then a 5-on-3 power-play goal by Ryan Johansen that had the arena rumbling.
Aho’s first goal, on a second-period power play, was important. The third period belonged to the Canes, who outshot the Preds 16-5, forcing Saros to make save after save, until Hamilton scored on a set faceoff play, sneaking in alone on the backdoor for a 3-3 tie.
The Predators were playing shorthanded at that point. They lost their captain, defenseman Roman Josi, after he took a big hit in the third from the Canes’ Jordan Martinook, missing the last 14:30 of regulation.
“I didn’t think we played (well), especially the first two periods, and obviously Nashville was good,” Aho said. “We weren’t quite there. But the third period was an unbelievable effort through the lineup and obviously OT as well. It shows there’s no quit in this team.”
From the time the NHL announced the four-division setup for this season and with the first two rounds of the playoffs set within the division, the Canes were faced with the prospect of having to face Tampa Bay. The Canes’ goal is to win a Stanley Cup. To do it, they’ll have to go through the team that held up the Cup last year.