Slowly but surely, the qualifying round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is approaching. On Aug. 1, the New York Rangers will take on the Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-five series for a chance to play in the postseason.
It has been a while since the Rangers last played, March 11 to be exact. But, they are getting set to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Haven’t had a chance to catch up on the season’s main storylines? Here’s your chance to refresh your knowledge.
The Offense’s Dynamic Duo
The Rangers’ biggest storyline this season was one of the league’s hottest duos. Russian phenom Artemi Panarin and center Mika Zibanejad were on a tear all season. What more can be said of Panarin, the first-year Ranger?
He is a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award and finished tied for 3rd in points in the NHL with 95. He was easily the Rangers’ best player on a nightly basis, especially considering he put up elite numbers and a plus-36 while playing most of the season with Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Panarin’s name on the ballot for the Hart Trophy, considering where the Rangers stand.
Now, onto the red-hot Swede. Zibanejad has blossomed into the elite first-line center the Rangers have needed for a very long time. With 41 goals in 57 games, he finished with the highest goals-per-game average in the NHL. Zibanejad is a goal-scoring threat every time he steps on the ice and the numbers are beginning to show it.
The Rangers are the second-youngest team entering the 24-team playoff format, trailing only the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Rangers wouldn’t be where they are now without the positive impact of the team’s rookie and sophomore skaters this season. Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and Igor Shesterkin have chipped as important role players.
The two rookies that stand out are Fox and Shesterkin. Fox almost warranted a Calder Trophy nomination with his stellar combination of offensive and defensive production. He finished 15th in the NHL for points by a defenseman, while also leading the Rangers in defenseman points with 42.
The other big storyline from this season was the emergence of Shesterkin. The Russian goalie turned heads with 10 wins in his first 12 NHL starts. With a .932 save percentage and a 2.51 goals-against average, it seems as though Shesterkin is poised to lead the Rangers into the playoffs against Carolina.
A Struggling Defense
Earlier this summer, the New Jersey Devils pried Lindy Ruff away from the Rangers to be their head coach. Ruff was an assistant with the Rangers, mainly focusing on defense. Needless to say, Ruff’s defensive structure was not a strong one in New York and it showed throughout the 2019-20 season.
The Rangers were near the bottom of the league in almost every defensive category. They were tied for 23rd in goals allowed, 30th in shots on goal allowed and last for penalty minutes per game with an average of 11.2. Those numbers are not inspiring, especially since the Hurricanes are near the top of the NHL in goals per game and shots on goal per game. There is only so much solid goaltending can do, and the Rangers need to find a stronger defensive strategy to beat Carolina.
The Hot Stretch
Since Feb 9, the Rangers managed 11 wins in 17 games to climb up the standings and earn a right to play in the 24-team playoff format. Without that run, the Rangers would not have been invited. During that stretch, they came away with wins against the Winnipeg Jets, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals and Hurricanes.
In February, the Rangers looked like a remodeled team. They saw some excellent offensive efficiency, beautiful puck movement and improved defense. Of those 11 wins, the Rangers conceded less than two goals in seven of them. For a team that struggles with defense, there were clear improvements as the season moved along.
In late February, Chris Kreider gave Rangers fans and the front office a moment of panic when he broke his left ankle after going down to block a shot against the Philadelphia Flyers. After being ruled out for at least 4-6 weeks, the Rangers seemed destined to play without their forechecking winger. However, the COVID-19 pandemic gave Kreider the chance to recover for the delayed summer playoffs. He is now practicing with other Rangers and seems poised to be in the starting lineup come August.
Kreider has been an impact player for the Rangers all season. After going scoreless in his first seven games, he managed 24 goals in the next 51 games. His postseason presence and leadership helped him earn a seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension at the 2020 Trade Deadline. Kreider’s return is huge for the team and he will undoubtedly play a large role against the Hurricanes and beyond.
The Rangers have a daunting task to face Carolina in just a few weeks, but it will be a much closer series than some might expect. The Hurricanes’ strong defense and the Rangers’ prolific offense will clash to see who advances to the next round.
Sophomore journalism major at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. Business director and play-by-play broadcaster for WMUC Sports. Former intern for the Anton Media Group.