Attention hockey bracket-fillers, there just might be a 1-2 punch of safe-risks in this year’s extraordinarily unpredictable 22-team format.

Might I interest you in a four-line team on the brink of closing out its qualifying round? How about a low-expectation regular season team that had an impressive game one showing and is about as tight defensively as any in the tournament? If you’re still with me (and please, stay with me on this), I present to you: The Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets. Your 2020 Eastern Conference Final.

It’s not the meeting you or I or anyone else may have expected, but it’s hard to ignore the pair of Metro division clubs, how they’ve played and what it’s been like to play against them.

Carolina, who can become the first of the 16 qualifying teams to advance to the real dance on Tuesday with a win over the Rangers, have stifled Broadway’s offense, allowing a goal a piece to its most potent weapons–Artemi Panarin (32 regular season goals) and Mika Zibanejad (41). Even as a sixth-year veteran goaltender, Petr Mrazek is still not a household name, but he’s 2-0 and has a 1.5 GAA and has outplayed Henrik Lundqvist (3.52 GAA), who probably deserved a better fate if not some run support through six periods.

Elsewhere (well, I suppose not), Columbus shined defensively in its series-opener against the Leafs. Toronto didn’t get much in-close time or space in 60 minutes and it only got tighter after Cam Atkinson fired home the difference quickly into the third period.

To say risk might imply a void in star power. Not the case between the two clubs, however. Is there any greater envy league-wide than the top defensive unit the Blue Jackets can deploy of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski? Sebastian Aho’s offer sheet last summer was matched quickly by GM, Don Waddell. Everyone knows the elite offensive talent he’s blossomed into and even in just his second season, Andrei Svechnikov’s abilities are no secret. And in case you forgot, the tape on Monday will shout it at you: Three goals for the first-ever Carolina playoff hat trick.

Despite the COVID-shortened sophomore season, Svechnikov had 24 more points this season in 14 less games. And, as Rangers head coach, David Quinn noted, he’s the complete package.

“He’s the whole package,” he said. “He’s got a lot of skill, physical, quick. There’s really not a lot he can’t do. That’s why he was the second pick overall. He’s really been one of the best players at every level he’s been at and he’s quickly emerging as one of the best players in this league, that’s for sure.”

As for the 20-year-old winger on how he’s played this series, scoring three goals and registering 9 hits.

“I just love that style,” he said. “Just hit hard and I think I’m playing a hard game. I think that’s why I’m scoring goals. I’m going to hit and go in the offensive zone and someone’s going to give it to me and I’m going to shoot it on net.”

Is there a team who has benefited more from the long pause than John Tortorella’s? Seth Jones is fully healthy after surgery to repair a fractured ankle.

“I’ve looked forward to this ever since I got hurt,” Jones said. “He (Tortorella) said he’s going throw me right in and I’ll be ready to go.”

And that he was with 26:54 TOI, seven hits and five shot attempts. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares all saw a lot of him, but it’s also a defense with plentiful depth.

“Our depth on (defense) is definitely a strength of our team,” Jones said. “Gavrikov and (Savard) are shut-down guys, hard to play against, physical. We’re comfortable with all six–we have guys not even in the lineup that can come in and play as well. On any given night, we have everyone going and that’s what is great about our D-corp.”

The depth on the back-end and up front coupled with hard work approach, evidenced in game one, has allowed the coach a certain luxury in not having to concern himself much with matching lines.

“We’ve never been a team that’s locked in on match-up’s,” Tortorella said earlier this week. “We’re not going to be. Everybody’s going to get an opportunity and I’ll make the call as we get through the game of who we feel is giving us our best chance.”

And in answering that opportunity, the Jackets did a good job in getting tight and physical on some of the Leafs’ greatest weapons.

“They play a pretty straightforward game,” Matthews said. “They’re going to compete, they’re going to be physical. I thought we did some good things, there’s obviously some things we can clean up. We’ve got to create more offense, get more guys along the inside and capitalize on some opportunities as well.”

For Carolina, it was the industrious fourth line of Jordan Martinook, Brock McGinn and rookie Morgan Geekie frustrated the Rangers all afternoon while registering eight shot attempts. They tallied a second period goal to make it 3-1 before Martinook scrapped with Rangers’ Tony DeAngelo in the third, a sign of the wear and tear of Carolina’s relentless approach.

“If you ask any guy on our team the way we need to play to be successful is our forecheck and back pressure,” Martinook said. “We have four lines that aren’t afraid to go out and work hard. It starts with (these guys) our top line–they’re not afraid to get pucks behind the (defense) and go to work and play hard down there. When you see your best players doing that it just kind of flows all the way down our lineup. We know the type of game we need to play and I feel like we’ve done that pretty well.”

For New York, the Rangers knew they showed their hand a bit concerning frustration.

“I think we could have done a better job of staying more connected,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said of the two early second period goals in 71 seconds. “I think we got away from it a bit and we just really weren’t able to generate much.”

Quinn says that has to change.

“Between now and tomorrow at 8 we have to learn that we can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said. “Our lack of patience is killing us right now. Was it better than it was the other night? Yeah, it was, but we didn’t come here to get incrementally better; we came to win hockey games. We’re not doing enough.”

Perhaps lost in Carolina’s handling of New York is their ability to keep them in check without Dougie Hamilton (unfit to play). In his absence, it’s been a by-committee approach with a six-man deployment. Sami Vatanen, who was injured when he was acquired at the deadline from New Jersey has returned to form quite well logging 19-minutes plus on back-to-back games.

“He’s got big shoes to fill there,” Canes head coach, Rod Brind’Amour said on Vatanen following his game one showing–two assists in 20:41 of ice-time. “Dougie being out is just a huge hole for us. If you go back to why we got (Vatanen) was because Dougie was out and to help fill that void. I thought his game got better as we got along too. He’s been out a long, long time. He was pretty comfortable with how we play and I’d expect that to continue.”

And with both teams fairly comfortable in what has looked uncomfortable for the Rangers and Maple Leafs, it might beg the question of just how far both these teams can go and how unsettling they can be for on rest of the East.

 

About The Author

Mad about being born into a Mets household during the Yankees dynasty, Neal McHale turned to something different after the 2000 World Series. He got NHL 2001 as a gift and it helped pioneer a hockey love affair. His first sportswriting gig was covering the historically-gritty Big East Conference. Since 2015, he's been with Inside Hockey covering the NHL.

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