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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    We meet again: Hurricanes and Islanders reunite to open NHL playoffs for 2nd straight year

    New York Islanders' Anders Lee (27) celebrates with teammates after scoring an empty net goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

    Raleigh, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders are getting another postseason reunion.

    The teams are meeting in the first round of the NHL playoffs for the second straight season, and this marks the third time the teams will meet in six postseasons. The Hurricanes won both previous matchups, including a six-game series in last year's first round.

    The Hurricanes are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup, according to Bet MGM Sportsbook, as they enter Saturday's Game 1 at home in this best-of-7 series. Carolina is in the playoffs for the sixth time in as many seasons under Rod Brind'Amour, continuing a multi-year push for the Cup that has twice ended in the Eastern Conference Final.

    “The consistency's been great but now we've got to take that next step,” team president and general manager Don Waddell said Friday.

    The teams both enter after late-season surges, though the stakes were very different.

    Carolina had the league's second-best record in terms of points percentage (.775), trailing only Dallas (.778), since the March 8 trade deadline and clinched a playoff spot weeks ago to turn its final games into a chase for postseason positioning.

    “We’ve got a team we believe can win it all,” Carolina captain Jordan Staal said, adding: “It’s just a matter of pushing through and find a way.”

    The Islanders, meanwhile, won eight of their last nine to clinch a playoff spot Monday. That came after an up-and-down season that led to a January coaching change (firing Lane Lambert to hire Patrick Roy) and included a six-game skid as recently as mid-March.

    “The whole goal is to be playing your best hockey at the right time and we’re putting things together here, to continue to build off of a foundation that’s putting ourselves in a position every night to win,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said.

    Healthy Canes

    The Hurricanes are largely healthy, a big change from the past two years.

    Forward Jesper Fast didn't practice Thursday or Friday due to what Waddell described as a neck strain, an injury he has dealt with previously. Fast was knocked from Tuesday's loss at Columbus in the regular-season finale.

    Brind'Amour ruled Fast out for Game 1, though Waddell said he thought it was “just a matter of days at this point” before Fast can return.

    Overall, though, Carolina isn't dealing with a major injury like top goaltender Frederik Andersen missing the 2022 playoffs due to a late-season lower-body injury or physical forward Andrei Svechnikov missing last year's postseason due to a knee injury.

    Svechnikov is back after tallying 52 points (19 goals) in 59 regular-season games.

    “I've been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Svechnikov said, adding: “I'm excited and can't wait, I've got goosebumps thinking about it.”

    In net

    The Islanders have a strong goalie tandem with Ilya Sorokin (25-19-12, 3.01 goals-against average, .909 save percentage) and Semyon Varlamov (14-8-4, 2.60, .918).

    Sorokin lost six straight starts before going 3-0-1 during the Islanders’ key late-season push. Varlamov was especially stellar during that same stretch, going 8-1-1 with a 2.08 GAA over his last 10 starts.

    “Both our goalies have played incredibly well down the stretch and they’re the reason we’re gearing ourselves up for a playoff,” forward Kyle Palmieri said.

    For Carolina, Frederik Andersen is 9-1 in 10 starts since his March 7 return from a four-month absence due to a blood-clotting issue, posting a league-best .951 save percentage to go with a 1.30 goals-against average in that span. Carolina leaned on 24-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov (23-13-4, 2.33, .911) to carry much of the load with Andersen out.

    Balanced scoring

    The Islanders were 22nd in the league in scoring (2.99 goals per game), with Brock Nelson (34), Bo Horvat (33) and Palmieri (30) giving the Islanders three 30-goal scorers for the first time since the 1993-94 season. Defenseman Noah Dobson (60) and star center Mathew Barzal (57) nearly gave the team two with 60 assists.

    Special teams

    The Hurricanes have the clear edge on special teams. Carolina is ranked second in the NHL on the power play (26.9%) behind Tampa Bay and leads the league on the penalty kill (86.4%). New York is 19th with the man advantage (20.4%) and last on the kill (71.5%).

    Deadline bump

    Carolina has been looking for another top scorer and finisher from past postseason stumbles, an issue made worse with Svechnikov's injury last year. The trade-deadline addition of forward Jake Guentzel from Pittsburgh has led to a big bump.

    Guentzel had eight goals and 17 assists in 25 games for Carolina, and the Hurricanes have outscored opponents 34-6 when he's been on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick.

    Carolina also acquired Evgeny Kuznetsov from Washington after he had spent a month receiving care from the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program, further bolstering the team's depth.

    New York Islanders head coach Patrick Roy, center top, looks up at the scoreboard during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Joe Maiorana)
    FILE - Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour speaks to his team during a timeout in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks, in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Brind'Amor has turned Carolina into a regular among the league's elite with its relentless on-ice style, along with making the Hurricanes the betting favorite to win the Cup on the eve of this year's playoffs. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

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