Central Division playoff preview
Getty Images

The Lightning face a daunting road while defending their crown after finishing behind two of the league's most analytically sound teams, and ahead of a club that was among the hottest during the second half.

But goaltending could reign supreme, even with all the offensive firepower in the Central Division. The division features playoff teams that finished first, second, and fourth in five-on-five SV%. And Andrei Vasilevskiy is in the crease for the Central's other postseason-bound club.

Let's break it down.

1. Hurricanes (-240) vs. 4. Predators (+190)

Overall

Hurricanes Stat Predators
36-12-8 Record 31-23-2
6-2-0 H2H 2-5-1
53.89 (6th) xGF%* 49.76 (17th)
54.95 (3rd) CF%* 49.46 (16th)
55.41 (6th) HDCF%* 50.62 (15th)
7.21 (28th) SH%* 7.76 (24th)
.935 (2nd) SV%* .936 (1st)
25.6 (2nd) PP% 17.6 (24th)
85.2 (3rd) PK% 75.4 (29th)

*five-on-five

Head-to-head

Date Home-Away xG* CF%* HDCF* Goalies
1/18 NSH 2 - CAR 4 1.76 - 2.61 49.76 - 50.24 6 - 11 Rinne - Reimer
3/2 NSH 2 - CAR 4 1.98 - 3.23 44.25 - 55.75 9 - 11 Saros/Rinne - Reimer
3/9 CAR 3 - NSH 2 OT 2.93 - 3.58 47.91 - 52.09 14 - 12 Nedeljkovic - Rinne
3/11 CAR 5 - NSH 1 2.67 - 2.89 49.33 - 50.67 8 - 10 Reimer - Rinne
4/15 CAR 4 - NSH 1 2.65 - 2.23 51.4 - 48.6 8 - 8 Mrazek - Saros
4/17 CAR 3 - NSH 1 6.72 - 2.51 61.5 - 38.5 29 - 10 Nedeljkovic - Saros
5/8 NSH 3 - CAR 1 3.66 - 1.66 57.49 - 42.51 16 - 7 Saros - Nedeljkovic
5/10 NSH 5 - CAR 0 2.54 - 1.35 49.94 - 50.06 8 - 8  Rinne - Mrazek

*all strengths

Go look at this Hurricanes team and find me the weak spot. Seriously, are you looking?

Jordan Staal is the third-line center behind Sebastian Aho and Vincent Trocheck. Six Hurricanes wingers are posting at least a 15-goal pace in a standard 82-game season. They're so loaded on the blue line that two NHL-caliber defensemen will be watching Game 1 from the press box. The team boasts goaltenders who rank second and third in the NHL in GSAA/60 (minimum 10 starts). Rod Brind'Amour is a front-runner for the Jack Adams Award, and his assistants oversee the league's No. 2 power play and No. 3 penalty kill. This club is an absolute juggernaut.

Over the past two seasons, depth up front prevented the Hurricanes from taking the next step, particularly down the middle. Enter Trocheck.

He's been the club's missing link while filling a gaping hole as the second-line center and doing so with aplomb. Carolina is controlling 56.73% of the expected goal share at five-on-five when Trocheck is on the ice, as he's been the catalyst for one of the NHL's most productive second lines alongside Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas. The Hurricanes have been nearly impossible to contain with that trio playing behind a typically dominant top line, and ahead of an impressively efficient checking line.

The Predators learned that the hard way this season, but they're coming in hot after posting a 20-7-1 second-half record. They did well just to make the playoffs after many were expecting GM David Poile to strip the team for parts at the deadline following such a miserable start.

But It's been all smiles in Nashville over the last two months, though a dose of reality is coming against a Hurricanes team that easily handled the Predators during the season. In fact, Nashville was an ugly 7-17-0 against the Central Division's three playoff teams, with two of those wins coming over the last two games of the Predators' season when Carolina had already clinched the division title.

All signs point to the Predators being mostly overmatched in this series, but it's impossible to count them out with the red-hot Juuse Saros in net. The 26-year old has been the league's undisputed best goalie since returning from an injury on March 18, ranking first in GSAA (22.9) and GSAx (14.32). If he can maintain that play in the series, the Predators will have a fighting chance.

Saros can be trusted to steal a game or two, but the Hurricanes led the league in xGF/60 (2.74) at five-on-five, and they paced the NHL in special-teams goals (49). That firepower will win out over a series, barring a Jaroslav Halak-like effort from the Nashville netminder.

With a much tougher opponent waiting, Carolina will be eager to end this series quickly.

Pick: Hurricanes -1.5 (-120)

2. Panthers (+115) vs. 3. Lightning (-145)

Overall

Panthers Stat Lightning
37-14-5 Record 36-17-3
5-2-1 H2H 3-5-0
54.89 (3rd) xGF%* 53.23 (9th)
54.32 (4th) CF%* 53.14 (7th)
53.79 (7th) HDCF%* 51.86 (12th)
7.82 (23rd) SH%* 8.34 (12th)
.926 (4th) SV%* .921 (11th)
20.5 (15th) PP% 22.4 (8th)
79.8 (17th) PK% 84.2 (4th)

*five-on-five

Head-to-head

Date Home-Away xG* CF%* HDCF* Goalies
2/11 FLA 5 - TB 2 3.38 - 1.15 57.68 - 42.32 9 - 2 Bobrovsky - Vasilevskiy
2/13 FLA 1 - TB 6 2.46 - 2.86 52.38 - 47.62 9 - 9 Bobrovsky - Vasilevskiy
2/15 TB 4 - FLA 6 2.45 - 1.99 56.74 - 43.26 10 - 6 McElhinney - Driedger
3/21 TB 5 - FLA 3 3.85 - 2.86 47.89 - 52.11 17 - 12 McElhinney - Bobrovsky
4/15 TB 3 - FLA 2 OT 1.17 - 2.79 41.35 - 58.65 4 - 13 Vasilevskiy - Driedger
4/17 TB 3 - FLA 5 1.66 - 3.26 45.42 - 54.58 9 - 7 Vasilevskiy - Bobrovsky
5/8 FLA 5 - TB 1 2.06 - 2.71 50.87 - 49.13 6 - 3 Bobrovsky - Vasilevskiy
5/10 FLA 4 - TB 0 2.98 - 2.1 58.59 - 41.41 6 - 6 Driedger - Vasilevskiy

*all strengths

Calling this in-state matchup a rivalry is a stretch, but it's been trending in that direction this season. Animosity has been building between the two Sunshine State teams that are meeting for the first time in the postseason.

This might be the toughest first-round matchup to predict, with so many variables that could drastically swing the probability.

Nikita Kucherov is slated to play for the first time this season in Game 1, but is he truly healthy? And will there be an adjustment period for him?

How healthy is Steven Stamkos? He hasn't played since April 8.

Will Victor Hedman be ready for Game 1? And will he be effective playing through an injury that's going to require offseason surgery?

And will it be Sergei Bobrovsky or Chris Driedger starting in goal for the Panthers?

That's a lot to unpack. To start, the Lightning are limping into the playoffs and looking vulnerable prior to squaring off with a Panthers team the betting market is dangerously underrating. Only five clubs face longer odds to win the Stanley Cup than Florida (17-1), despite its top-five record and equally impressive underlying metrics.

Florida more than held its own against the defending champions this season. While Kucherov returning means those meetings are less significant, the Panthers' current lineup also wasn't together for most of those clashes. Adding Sam Bennett - who has formed a nearly unstoppable line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Owen Tippett - has really solidified the Panthers' top six, making them stronger down the middle in an attempt to match Tampa's center depth. Bennett recorded four points over two games against the Lightning, with both of those contests resulting in Florida wins.

Even if we assume Tampa benefits from a fully healthy lineup, there's every reason to believe Florida can keep up. So the big question in this series centers around goaltending.

Vasilevskiy's workload was efficiently managed, and he should be fresh. But who will start opposite him? The difference between Driedger and Bobrovsky is hardly negligible.

Goalie GSAA GSAx
Driedger 12.48 (7th) 7.03 (8th)
Bobrovsky -2.65 (59th) -10.65 (79th)

Still, Joel Quenneville hasn't given the reigns to Driedger, opting to instead alternate between the two while hoping Bobrovsky can rediscover the form that earned him his hefty contract.

If Driedger gets the nod, the goaltending gap in this series shrinks significantly. Many view Vasilevskiy as the world's best goalie, and he's capable of stealing a game any night. But Driedger posted a higher GSAA/60 and five-on-five SV% (.942) this season. If it's Bobrovsky in Game 1, he'll likely be on a short leash.

Quenneville confirming Driedger as the starter before the series would create plenty of value on the Panthers with this series line. But that's unlikely, and there's plenty of injury uncertainty, so I'll be looking to get involved here on more of a game-to-game basis as opposed to betting the series price.

However, the last two Stanley Cup champions were eliminated in the first round the following season. This feels a lot like the 2019 series between the Capitals and Hurricanes, when a young, hungry Carolina team bounced the reigning champs in seven.

Lean: Panthers (+115)

Alex Moretto is theScore's supervising editor of sports betting. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.

Comments
Central Division playoff preview
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox