The Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2021 playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Central Division and one of the best teams in the league overall. The Canes don't have a lot of Stanley Cup winners on their roster, but it shouldn't be surprising that both Teuvo Teravainen and Jordan Staal led the attack in Carolina's Game 1 win over Nashville.
Teravainen has a championship ring from his days in Chicago, while Staal got to the top of the mountain with Pittsburgh back in 2009. And even though it's been more than a decade since that run with the Penguins, Staal is once again bringing that experience into the fight as Carolina's captain.
Staal scored twice in the 5-2 win over the Predators including the back-breaking insurance goal midway through the third period. He also threw four hits, won 54 percent of his faceoffs and helped the Canes penalty-kill stymie the Predators' power play.
"He was great and that's just what he does: he plays hard every shift," said Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour. "Whatever the situation, you can count on him and that's why he's our leader."
The dangerous aspect of this Carolina team is how versatile it is. According to Brind'Amour, they're comfortable in run-and-gun situations but they also have no problem grinding it out - something his captain is more than happy to do when necessary.
"It's part of playoff hockey," Staal said. "Being physical, wearing guys down, finishing checks and going to the net hard and defending hard. It's good hockey and I enjoy the battle."
Based on the profile of this team, Carolina is in its championship window now; the core of veterans are set, there is talent at every position and youngsters such as Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas have enough experience to be real difference-makers in a series. The biggest X-factor was in net, where the decision between veteran Petr Mrazek, who only played 12 games this season due to injury woes, and rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, went to the kid.
Nedeljkovic looked solid in Game 1 and if he can pull off one of those Matt Murray/Jordan Binnington unknown goalie runs, the Canes will be set. But there's a long way to go before we can even begin to ponder that. What Carolina needs right now is to build off that strong Game 1 victory and realize what it takes to amp it up with every new outing.
"They're going to be tight matches," Staal said. "It's playoff hockey and you have to be comfortable in those situations and trust in your game and not deviate from that. For the most part, throughout that whole game we did a good job of that and you could tell towards the end we were starting to take over."
When Staal won the Cup in Pittsburgh, he was a young piece of a very impressive puzzle. Fellow kids Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby led the way, but they were backed up ably by veterans such as Bill Guerin, Sergei Gonchar and Ruslan Fedotenko. Now he's the guy that has been there before.
During his near-decade in Carolina (where has the time gone?), Staal and the Canes have only made one real run in the post-season, when they went to the conference final in 2019 before getting swept by the Boston Bruins. With either Florida or Tampa Bay looming as a potential second-round opponent, the road won't be easy - and the Canes can't even get on that road until they beat Nashville three more times - but with Staal helming the ship and an able cast behind him, we should all at least start preparing for a Storm Warning.