Anticipation is building as the NHL approaches its return to play on Aug. 1, and it’ll be the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers who kick things off with a Saturday afternoon 12 p.m. drop of the puck. The playoff-qualifying series will be best of five, with the winner advancing to the official 16-team playoff bracket.
The Hurricanes were one of two teams who originally voted against the imminent return-to-play format. They spent most of the season in a playoff position and on March 12, the day the NHL suspended the season, Moneypuck.com had the Hurricanes at an 79.3 percent chance to make the playoffs.
To add salt in the wound, the Hurricanes are forced to battle the Rangers in their playoff qualifier, a team they went 0-4-0 against during the regular season. The Rangers were also given just a 24.4 percent change by Moneypuck.com to qualify for the postseason.
Speculation was that the Hurricanes voted against the format because it only benefited non-playoff teams like the Rangers, Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens. The other team to reject the proposal, the Tampa Bay Lightning, cited concerns over the advantages a qualifying team would have coming into a first-round series already warmed up.
With the latest round of the NHL’s COVID-19 testing coming back 100% negative, it finally seems plausible the NHL could see its well-laid-out postseason plan come to fruition. Here’s a preview for the much-anticipated matchup between the Hurricanes and Rangers.
Rangers Dominated Regular Season Series
Those who followed the Hurricanes closely throughout the season are probably aware of one of their most troubling storylines – failure to collect points from divisional rivals. The Metropolitan division gave the Hurricanes more trouble than anywhere else this season, but the Rangers especially were a thorn in their side.
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With a dismal 8-12-1 record against Metropolitan opponents, the Hurricanes almost collected more points in 13 games against Central Division teams than the 21 games they played within their division.
If you go back even further, in the last 30 meetings between the Hurricanes and Rangers, Carolina has won just six of those. Yes, it’s not a desirable matchup for the ‘Canes, and when you take into account the resurgence the Rangers had this season, it’s downright daunting.
Carolina’s dented blue line will be tasked with defending 41-goal sniper Mika Zibanejad and Hart Trophy-nominee Artemi Panarin as they look to stop two of the league’s most prolific scorers.
The Hurricanes also face the highest-scoring defense in the league, with offensive specialists Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox leading Rangers blueliners with 53 and 42 points respectively. With a combined 32 power-play points this season, the young defensemen helped the Rangers improve their power play to 22.9 percent, good for seventh in the league.
The key to dismantling the Rangers’ defense is to overwhelm them. The Hurricanes are a strong possession team, and they need to use that strength to expose the youth and inexperience on the Rangers’ back end.
The only problem is a large chunk of Carolina’s offense comes from its top line of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravinanen, who accounted for roughly 32 percent of the Hurricanes’ offense. They’ll need some help from the supporting cast, especially if the Rangers are able to effectively shut down that dangerous trio.
Rangers’ Goaltending Outclasses Carolina’s
Put another checkmark in the goaltending category for the Rangers, who sport a beefy roster of three starter-caliber goalies.
The future of the Blueshirts’ crease is in good hands with 24-year-old stud goalies Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin, but it was longtime veteran Henrik Lundqvist who stonewalled the Rangers to three victories over the Hurricanes this season, and could be the man to start Game 1.
The 38-year-old lifetime Ranger stopped a combined 132 of 139 shots in those games, earning three victories with a stunning save percentage (SV%) of .947.
Historically, the Hurricanes have always struggled against the former Vezina Trophy winner, but even in their final meeting of the season on Feb. 21, when the Rangers iced Shesterkin, the result was the same. The Russian rookie stopped 27 of 29 shots in a 5-2 Rangers win.
At the other end of the ice, the Hurricanes have two goalies who mostly split the workload this season, with neither goalie making a particularly strong case to be the No. 1 guy in Carolina.
Petr Mrazek played 40 games this season as the Hurricanes’ usual go-to guy, sporting a 21-16-2 record, .905 SV% and 2.69 goals-against average (GAA). Reimer dressed for 25 games, earning a record of 14-6-2, .914 SV% and 2.66 GAA.
Although Reimer’s numbers are better on paper, Mrazek is the likely starter in Game 1. His enthusiasm and competitiveness often give a boost to his teammates, even if his playstyle can be overly hyper at times. Both goalies were marred by streaks of inconsistency this season, so it’s more likely than not that both Mrazek and Reimer will be called upon.
Status of Hamilton, Pesce Uncertain
Hurricanes star defenseman Dougie Hamilton appears to have hit another roadblock as head coach Rod Brind’Amour announced Monday Hamilton is still “unfit” to play.
The Athletic’s Sara Civian reported that the injury is not related to the broken fibula Hamilton suffered in January.
With Hamilton’s status unclear, and Brett Pesce still on the sidelines from shoulder surgery he underwent in early March, the Hurricanes are down two of their top defensemen. Luckily, they have reinforcements.
Sami Vatanen, who was acquired from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline, will be looking to make his first start for the Hurricanes in Game 1. He’s been practicing in Hamilton’s usual spot beside Jaccob Slavin on the No. 1 defense pairing. With Hamilton’s spot open on the No. 1 power-play unit as well, it’s likely Vatanen gets that spot.
Filling out the blue line, the Hurricanes promoted Jake Gardiner and Trevor van Riemsdyk to the second pairing on their final day of training camp. The third duo features Brady Skjei and Joel Edmundson, while Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean are in the bullpen as the seventh and eighth defensemen.
Although Pesce is ruled out for the series against the Rangers, the Hurricanes did include him on their Phase 4 final roster, which means should he make a full recovery, and the Hurricanes make a deep run, he could return further down the road.
Familiar Faces Meet Again
There’s talent, brawn, and firepower on both sides of this rivalry, but both teams will also have to adjust to seeing former teammates playing on the enemy side.
The Rangers and Hurricanes shook hands-on two trades over the course of the season. The Rangers acquired 22-year-old power forward Julien Gauthier from the ‘Canes for Joey Keane in February, a surprise swap of two young players on the fringe of the NHL.
Keane, a defenseman, is still on the development path, but Gauthier made the Phase 4 roster for the Rangers and could suit up to battle against his former team.
Hurricanes defenseman Skjei is also adjusting to life with the Hurricanes, having been another Feb. 24 deadline acquisition of general manager Don Waddell. It will be his first time facing the Rangers, who he has spent all five years of his career with. Skjei dressed for seven games with the ‘Canes this season before the NHL season was paused.
He averaged 20:50 of ice time and will have to be a key part of the blue line tasked with stopping the league’s fifth-highest-scoring team.
Rangers forwards Greg McKegg and Phillip Di Giuseppe are both familiar with the Hurricanes. McKegg played 41 regular-season games and 14 playoff games for the ‘Canes last season, while Di Giuseppe spent the first seven years of his career in the Hurricanes organization.
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Former Hurricane captain Eric Staal will be on his own quest with the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference qualifier, but brothers Marc and Jordan will be competing against each other in this series out East.
It will be the first time since 2007-08 that Marc and Jordan play each other in a playoff setting. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals of that season, Jordan’s Pittsburgh Penguins defeated Marc’s Rangers 4-1.
How Can the Hurricanes Solve the Rangers?
With the Hurricanes being the statistically better team, but the Rangers having the edge head-to-head, there’s no clear favorite or underdog in this series.
The key to a Hurricanes victory will have to come from the back end. Between Mrazek and Reimer – whoever gets that first start needs to come prepared. The Rangers’ offense is too dynamic to have a shaky performance in net like we saw so often throughout the season.
Carolina’s defense will have very little time to adjust to each other. There will be a large degree of unfamiliarity with newcomers Vatanen and Skjei and the structure of pairings that will follow.
Slavin may be the most important player for the Hurricanes in this series, as he will be the man Brind’Amour utilizes to disrupt the magic Panarin and Zibanejad weave so easily. The Rangers are one of the league’s most dangerous scoring teams, but the Hurricanes’ fourth-ranked penalty kill (84 percent), led by Slavin, has the ability to meet the challenge.
The relentless staple of Brind’Amour hockey the Hurricanes exert so well will have to be powerful enough to wear down the rawness of the Rangers’ back end.
There’s a lot that needs to come together in a short five-game series if the Hurricanes want to earn a spot in the 2020 playoffs. But whether you’re a Hurricanes fan, Rangers fan, or neither, this must-watch series will be an explosive battle of skill and passion from start to finish.
Full Hurricanes-Rangers schedule:
Game 1: Saturday, Aug. 1 – 12 p.m. ET
Game 2: Monday, Aug. 3 – 12 p.m. ET
Game 3: Tuesday, Aug. 4 – 8 p.m. ET
Game 4: Thursday, Aug. 6 – TBD
Game 5: Saturday, Aug. 8 – TBD