It isn’t often there’s a final game between opponents whose futures are entirely assured that’s still overloaded with ominous postseason portents.
There’s nothing on the line Monday night when the Carolina Hurricanes close out the season at the Nashville Predators other than pride, except pride happens to be a particularly prized commodity considering they’ll go from playing for no actual stakes this game to the highest of stakes next weekend.
The Predators sent a message with their first win of the season against the Hurricanes on Saturday and the Hurricanes have a chance to send one back Monday before they resume hostilities in Raleigh in the first round of the playoffs, a curious state of affairs to say the least but certainly a more interesting conclusion to the season than the typical dead rubber.
So they’ll go from Nashville to Raleigh and eventually back to Nashville, at some point in the not-too-distant future, since Vancouver’s COVID crisis unavoidably delayed the conclusion of the Canadian division and the NHL has yet to figure out how much of a head start, if any, the other three divisions will get.
Under normal circumstances, this series would probably start Wednesday or Thursday, and while you would figure NBC would prefer the inventory, the network’s ads say the playoffs start Saturday even though the NHL hasn’t said anything, so both teams will likely have until Saturday or Sunday to stew over the results of this two-game series whether they like it or not.
This quirk of the schedule ensures at least one theme endures from the past two Hurricanes’ playoff openers: unfinished business.
The Hurricanes had gone 0-4-0 against the New York Rangers last season before sweeping them in the preliminary round last August; two years ago, the Hurricanes had gone 0-3-1 against the Washington Capitals before booting the defending champs on Brock McGinn’s overtime winner in Game 7.
There was plenty to prove in those series, and it was amply proven, but the Hurricanes had been a comfortable 6-0-0 against the Predators before Saturday’s Nashville win. That may well have been a welcome wakeup call for the Hurricanes, regardless of what happens tonight. Either way, they have some reason to be surly with Nashville that wasn’t there a few days ago. Maybe more after Monday night.
There’s no question, though, this was the playoff opponent the Hurricanes would have chosen if they had the option to pick.
The Predators beat out the Dallas Stars for the final playoff spot in the Central Division, and the Stars are only eight months removed from the Stanley Cup finals. By winning the division — the Hurricanes’ first division title of any kind since 2006 — they avoided Tampa Bay and Florida in the first round, and will hope those two grind each other to very dull nubs in the eventuality the Hurricanes advance.
There probably isn’t anything a Hurricanes win Monday would do that winning the first six meetings of the season with Nashville didn’t already, and with so much time off ahead of the next one there’s probably not a lot of momentum to be gained. Still, there’s something to be said for showing a lack of mercy in this game that leaves the Predators asking uncomfortable questions of themselves for a few days.
Whether the Hurricanes decide to put their foot down or just try to get through it with their minds on the harder work ahead, it’ll be easy to draw too many conclusions from this game, but unavoidable all the same. That’s fine. The playoffs are close enough. The next time we see these teams, it’ll be for real.