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The BSH bandwagoner’s guide to the Central division

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With no dog in the fight, it’s always fun to pick one.

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In the sleepiest days of the Flyers’ offseason, there’s not much to do in terms of leisure activities aside from watching baseball or playoff hockey. The latter might be a bit painful given the status of your favorite team, but fear not; we here at Broad Street Hockey are creating a brief, yet vaguely comprehensive guide to each division and the teams who you might choose to root for in their quest for the Cup. In the interest of hatred of rivals (a primary interest of any Flyers fan) the East division won’t be receiving this treatment, particularly because Philly fans are familiar with the teams included in that category.

Today’s overview will cover the Central division, aka my home turf. As a Nashville fan, I already have investment in this side of the postseason, but I’ve also been watching the Panthers, Hurricanes, and Lightning quite a bit this year. Who should you be rooting for, and why? Let’s dive in.

The Carolina Hurricanes

What makes them likable?

The Hurricanes have one of the better playoff atmospheres this year thanks to their heightened crowd capacity (around 10,000 people have been allowed inside to begin things, and more are on the way). Former Flyer favorite Rod Brind’Amour is the head coach of this team, and he’s an entertaining yet skillful force behind the bench. Carolina is ridiculously deep and has speed to burn, with a fairly young group of stars like Martin Necas and Sebastian Aho supplemented by veteran standouts Dougie Hamilton and Vincent Trocheck. In goal, Alex Nedeljkovic is a wonderful rags-to-riches story who provides a bit of flair and strong play that blends into a delightful concoction of goaltending splendor.

The Canes also play an entertaining brand of hockey, emphasizing controlled puck movement and absurdly aggressive forechecking. This team can get nasty when needed and has some physicality to pair with their top-tier special teams play and skill. They’re not a team propelled by offense alone, but are the complete package in a contender. Essentially, they’re a lite version of the Colorado Avalanche on paper. Oh, and this ritual is funnier than words can describe:

I have no idea why this makes me laugh so hard.

What makes them hateable?

From a Flyers perspective, this is a team within the division most years, so rooting for them to win a Stanley Cup isn’t exactly a comfortable feeling. Noted asshat/failure/former Flyer Petr Mrazek has managed an infuriating career resurgence in Raleigh, adding to a legacy of players who have left Philly and found success in Carolina (Rod the Bod, Justin Williams). Most importantly, Carolina fans are a bit obnoxious, particularly when it comes to complaining about officiating. Predators fans have had to endure whinging about the officiating slanting in favor of Nashville in the current series despite many of the infractions being perfectly fine calls.

Carolina isn’t explicitly hateable as much as they are irritating. Andrei Svechnikov and Jordan Martinook have done some pretty lame things in response to Nashville physically challenging them (Svechnikov refused to fight and then threw a punch after the refs separated the players, Martinook dumped Benning into the boards from behind after the two scrapped). This team sometimes slumps mid-game or seemingly abandons their game, which can be a bit frustrating to witness.

The bottom line:

If you want to watch what everyone thought the Flyers were going to blossom into this season, Carolina is a pretty solid surrogate. A deep, young blue line, a rookie goalie who’s on a hot streak, and a loaded forward group driven by depth, forechecking, and an even mix of veteran and young production are the elements at play here. The Hurricanes are a solid pick to come out of the Central, and they’re fun to watch.

The Nashville Predators

What makes them likable?

Nashville fans never fail to make Bridgestone Arena (AKA the Tire Barn) an electrifying atmosphere. The Preds have been involved in the careers of many fan favorite Flyers in their history (Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen, Peter Forsberg come to mind), and one could almost argue the whole “let’s tell the goalie they suck as loudly as possible” mentality makes them kindred spirits with Philly fans. The current Predators aren’t a flashy team by any means, but Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Roman Josi, and the playoff edition of Ryan Johansen provide some much-needed pop in a lineup that mostly gets its kicks by grinding games out. The whole thing is held together by Juuse Saros, who is so goddamn exciting. Saros is the smallest goalie in the NHL, yet he’s in Vezina contention this year thanks to his remarkable reflexes and sprawling saves.

This is a roster that has some bruisers on it, so best believe the Predators will be laying out some people and scrapping a good bit. Tanner Jeannot in particular has become a folk hero of sorts this season with his fantastic penalty killing and enormous, teeth-rattling checks in the open ice. He and the so-called “Herd Line” were the best fourth line in the entire league, and they legitimately win matchups with top six groups on occasion. Yakov Trenin is capable of bringing Zdeno Chara to his knees with a punch, so you know this line is legit.

Nashville isn’t the most entertaining team on the ice, but in terms of the value of watching a town and fanbase celebrate a team going deep in the postseason, it doesn’t get much better than the Music City. In a state where football and baseball have long been king at the high school and college levels, Predators hockey genuinely reigns supreme as the most beloved professional sport, particularly after the miracle run to the Cup Finals in the 2017 postseason. Preds bars dot the city, flags and banners (haha, make your jokes) plaster Broadway, and memorabilia of all kinds is omnipresent. For my final points here: Predators fans loathe the Penguins and Blackhawks, and I’m an enormous Nashville guy. I rest my case.

What makes them hateable?

This Preds team isn’t particularly fast or skilled, and honestly they’re very reminiscent of the Barry Trotz rosters that won on physicality, defense, and dump-and-chase hockey. There are intermittent explosions of fun shit, yes (see last night’s double overtime victory where Filip Forsberg pantsed Dougie Hamilton), but for the most part it’s very Islanders-esque hockey. Predators fans are also frequently as biased as they are passionate, so it can be pretty irritating to surround yourself with them when they’re constantly arguing about why Rocco Grimaldi deserves to be in the lineup “because he’s really fast.” It’s not much worse than the infamously sentimental portions of the Flyers fanbase who call for the return of the Bullies, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

Oh, speaking of annoying things, John Hynes is the head coach of this team, and he’s about as inspiring and emotional as a blob of cold tofu. The coach has provided a few funny moments purely by accident, but his lineup decisions and press conferences have been more frustrating than fruitful. This is a Nashville lineup that’s been pretty physical, but aside from that there isn’t a ton to like outside of their fans and atmosphere.

The bottom line:

This is likely Pekka Rinne’s final year in the NHL, and it would take an incredible, storybook run for him to finish his career with a Stanley Cup. That said, this team has a hot goalie and arguably the best home ice advantage in the league, so anything could happen. Rinne is a franchise icon and one of the best people to ever play professional hockey, and it would mean more than you could imagine if the towering Finn could go out on top. Everyone remembers what Nashville was like when they went to the Cup Final, and I don’t think fans would mind seeing that bedlam again.

It brings a tear to my eye.

The Florida Panthers

What makes them likable?

In short, the Panthers are all gas, no breaks. This team has zero goaltending and the defense is suspect at best; they’re playing Tampa Bay, a team that everyone attempts to slow down, and they’re doing so at a breakneck pace. Joel Quenneville ain’t afraid of anybody, and that makes Florida incredibly fun to watch. Alexander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are the two players that embody what makes playoff hockey so fun with their blitzing scoring pressure and jaw-dropping skill, and Carter Verhaege, Anthony Duclair, and Sam Bennett bring supplementary prowess behind that duo. Owen Tippett can let it rip, Patric Hornqvist is still Patric Hornqvist, and MacKenzie Weegar bloomed into a top-pair defender on a bargain deal.

The love here is all about the intensity and speed with which this team attacks. As I write this, it looks like Florida’s quest for the Cup will once again end in the first round, but the Panthers have made an impression in a series that’s been high-scoring chaos. This team can fight and is willing to, which is just an added bonus. Watching them is a treat.

What makes them hateable?

The Panthers are a sneaky hated franchise among Flyers fans thanks to their clash in the 1996 playoffs, where the fledgeling Legion of Doom came up short against an expansion team and squandered what would have arguably been their easiest path to a Stanley Cup win in the Lindros era (the Panthers lost to the Patrick Roy Avalanche in the Final). Historic hatred aside, Joel Quenneville spurned the Flyers in favor of Sunrise, Patric Hornqvist is a long-hated figure from his days with the Penguins, and Sergei Bobrovsky is a painful reminder of one of the worst decisions in Philadelphia’s hockey history.

The Panthers are also difficult to watch because their goaltending stinks. Bob has ironically become a new era Ilya Bryzgalov, woefully underperforming his ludicrous $70 million contract. Florida isn’t particularly deep on the back end either, and this is a team on the verge of getting eliminated in the first round. Not an easy team to hate by any means, but there are things here.

The bottom line:

If the Panthers make it out of the first round, they’d have won their first playoff series since 1996. For a market severely in need of a jolt, this would be good for hockey and good for the NHL; the question is whether Flyers fans hold any residual animosity here and if the Panthers manage to come back from going down 3-1 in a series against the reigning Cup champions.

The Tampa Bay Lightning

What makes them likable?

Tampa is the most exciting team to watch in hockey when everything’s clicking. Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Hedman, Vasilevsky, Cirelli, Palat, Killorn; these are all the names you already know, and they’ve been supplemented with further talent like Ross Colton, Blake Coleman, and David Savard to produce one of the cap era's few legitimate juggernauts. This is top to bottom the most complete roster in the league outside of maybe (maybe!) Colorado and Vegas, and even then there’s an argument. The high end forward talent on display here is unparalleled, the pace is lightning quick (see what I did there), and the potential matchup in the second round against Carolina would be thrilling to see.

Raw Charge’s Justin G. had this to say:

The Lightning rarely play boring games. The defense is always pinching in to keep the puck in the zone which is great for their offense, but also leads to a ton of odd-man rushes for their opponents when the Bolts turn the puck over. They play at an extremely fast pace and are lightning-quick (sorry, again) transitioning from defense to offense.

The power play. Seriously, how much fun is it to watch stuff like this?

Jeff Vinik. Compared to most owners in sports he’s a pretty good guy. He’s invested in the team and in the city. He lets the hockey folks take care of the hockey stuff. The players really seem to like what he’s down for the organization as well.

The weather. Say what you will about “non-traditional” hockey towns, nothing beats spending a day at the beach or out fishing, throwing on some shorts and a jersey and then heading to a hockey game. Based on the number of fans from other teams that come down for games, it seems folks really like the area.

Don’t we all want to see another boat parade? Owner Jeff Vinik’s awkward expression when he’s hugged by a drunk Kucherov? Pat Maroon’s living embodiment of Florida Man?

The Flyers and the Lightning may have only met twice in the postseason, but they were some pretty good match-ups. Remember the Thunderdome? The Legion of Doom? Eric Lindros running over everyone in a Lightning uniform? There has to be some nostalgic love seeing the Lightning in the playoffs.

Also, I’m sure they are still the only team to have their mascot appear on Jerry Springer for cheating on his spouse.

What makes them hateable?

Tampa fans can be pretty strong homers, Patrick Maroon’s infuriating bulk is on this team, and they allegedly circumvented the cap to bring back Kucherov for the playoffs. The Lightning are frequently the subject of some heated games against the Flyers, so that doesn’t help things either. Lastly, it’s just boring to root for the same team to win the Stanley Cup, particularly when it’s a franchise responsible for one of the more painful playoff series losses that Flyers fans have experienced. The Lightning took down Primeau, Gagne and co. behind Martin St. Louis and his thunder thighs, the ultimate freeloader Vincent Lecavalier, and the nightmarish “should’ve kept” postseason hero Ruslan Fedotenko. They’re not due for forgiveness just yet.

Justin adds:

Are they really hateable? I always thought they fell into the apathetic category. It’s not like they really have a full-time rival, although if this series against Florida keeps escalating that could change. For the longest time whenever I met opposing fans and told them I was a Lightning fan, the general response was, “that’s nice. Stamkos is really good, right?”. Sure there was some mild grumbling about Florida being a tax-free state and it gave them an unfair advantage in signing their own free agents, but no outright hostility.

Things have changed over the last year since they finally won the Stanley Cup. It seems to have sparked (last one, I promise) a lot more Lightning-based anger.

I’m going to guess the whole Salary Cap/LTIR thing seemed to really escalate it a bit. People really don’t seem to like that.

For a team that is billed as a skills-first team they do have a few shady episodes in their past with dirty hits, (looking at you Kucherov. You too, Erik Cernak.)

The bottom line:

If you’re rooting for the Lightning, you either want to see the most fun hockey possible, or you’re a nerd who likes to see the best team win all the time.

When asked why the Lightning deserve to win the Cup, Justin said this:

Deserve? Deserve’s got nothing to do with this. Alright, now that I have that out of the way, why do they deserve to win the Cup? Well, they are one of the best teams in the league. Their goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, will most likely be a Vezina Finalist for the fourth season in a row. Victor Hedman was garnering Norris talk before a reported late-season injury slowed him down. Nikita Kucherov is a top-five player in the game. Brayden Point might be the best all-around player on the team and it seems he gets nowhere near the recognition he deserves.

They can score (3.21 goals per game during the regular season, 7th in the league) and they can keep the puck out of the net (2.59 goals against, 5th in the league). Their power play is, pardon the pun, electric with Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Point, and Alex Killorn all skating around and shooting from every conceivable angle. They play fun hockey as opposed to some dreary, defense-first, suck-all-of-the-energy out of the arena style.