Hurricane warnings in Raleigh, where Nashville Predators arrive as an afterthought | Estes
RALEIGH, N.C. – Spread across to the south entrance of PNC Arena – where the Nashville Predators practiced Sunday afternoon – are a row of 16 empty boxes, the last of which reaches the Stanley Cup.
With each playoff win for the Carolina Hurricanes, they’ll check off a box.
Not four boxes – 16 boxes.
This is standard fanfare, perhaps, on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs. But with this Carolina team at this time, it expresses a belief both unmistakable and – truthfully – understandable. They absolutely expect to be playing long beyond their first-round series against the Predators.
And why shouldn’t they be confident?
The Hurricanes are viewed as a top contender in these playoffs for good reason. They entered a Central Division this season that featured last year’s Stanley Cup finalists (Tampa Bay and Dallas) and a handful of other capable foes. Carolina cruised past them all, winning the division with the third-highest point total in the NHL.
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The Canes beat the stuffing out of the Predators for a while, too, winning their first six meetings.
So do not kid yourself about this series that started in Raleigh on Monday night: The Predators arrived as gigantic underdogs. Hardly anyone thinks the Predators will push this series to six or seven games, much less win it and keep rolling through the tournament.
On Sunday, a $5,000 bet on the Predators to win the Stanley Cup would win you $180,000. They are the longest of the long shots in the 16-team field, along with the Winnipeg Jets.
To this, the Predators are barely raising an eyebrow.
"I know they are heavy favorites,” Predators forward Colton Sissons said Sunday. “It's all good with us. … In the 2017 run, we had that underdog mentality that gets talked about a lot. It's nice when you can surprise some teams and play better and play a harder style of hockey than maybe they are expecting. I think this team has a little bit of that in us.”
"Hockey is a funny game,” added defenseman Ben Harpur. “I feel like there's not a huge difference between the top team in the league and the bottom team in the league, and that's what makes it really exciting. In a playoff series, every team has a chance. ... We've seen them eight times this season. We definitely had our struggles with them early, and I feel like that kind of puts a little bit of a chip on shoulder. We have something to prove, for sure.”
The Predators’ ambition in this series is to showcase a style of hockey that hasn’t come all that naturally to them in the past – but it has become a staple as this season has progressed. They’ve been a tougher team late in this season, mentally in terms of resiliency, but also physically in that they are capable of wearing on an opponent through a long series.
That’s the plan: Play “a physical, gritty style of game,” Sissons said, to try to nullify the Canes’ overwhelming speed and skill in order to take advantage of the one area that the Predators do appear to have a clear edge entering this series – in goal with Juuse Saros (and Pekka Rinne if needed).
And if the Predators can get out of Raleigh by winning at least one game – making it 1-1 with the series headed back to Bridgestone Arena – who knows what can happen?
"Starting on the road isn't such a bad thing,” Sissons said. “If you can come in and steal a game – whether it's Game 1 or Game 2 – I think it's a job pretty well done. The home team and the favorites always want to get out on the right foot. If you can kind of make them stumble a little bit out of the gate and put some doubt in the back of their minds, I think that sets the road team up pretty well.”
Reach Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.