The New York Rangers rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their playoff opener, climbing out of a hole in each of their three consecutive victories en route to earning an exhilarating trip to Round 2.
Now the hard work really begins.
Yes, as good as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and co. are, the Blueshirts are making a major step up in class as they face the relentless Carolina Hurricanes, who dominated the season series between the teams and whose style of play the Rangers were unable to solve across four meetings, three of which went to Carolina and a fourth that the Hurricanes dominated, only to lose.
To find a way past this deep, formidable outfit that’s been on a steady rise for years, the Rangers will have to figure out how to control the pace, and the puck, for extended stretches – a task that eluded them all season in the face of Carolina’s tireless forecheck and quickness to the puck in all three zones. They’ll also have to match the Hurricanes’ physicality, another area in which the Blueshirts failed to measure up against the Metropolitan Division champions.
Winning the series means winning enough individual matchups, and here are five crucial ones the Rangers should start with as they travel to Raleigh for Game 1 on Wednesday:
1. Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Frank Vatrano vs. Nino Niederreiter-Jordan Staal-Jesper Fast
Carolina’s powerful checking trio played a significant role in the club’s seven-game victory over the Boston Bruins in the first round. Coach Rod Brind’Amour deployed them heavily against the Bruins’ No. 1 unit of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jake DeBrusk to great effect at home, where Brind’Amour had the last change. That unit, which includes the Rangers’ old friend Jesper Fast, is likely to draw the assignment against Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano for Games 1 and 2.
As crucial as Kreider and Zibanejad were in the comeback against the Penguins, it’s easy to forget that their line was being swallowed up by their matchup with Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust until Crosby was injured in Game 5 and sat out Game 6. The Rangers can’t afford to have this group neutralized until they get onto home ice for Games 3 and 4, when the opportunity to free them from Fast, Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Staal will exist. The Blueshirts’ top line needs to pick up where it left off in Game 7 against Pittsburgh or they’ll find themselves in an 0-2 hole by the time they arrive at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
2. Artemi Panarin vs. Hurricanes’ Top Two Lines
The Breadman’s less-than-overpowering series was forgiven when he delivered the overtime clincher Sunday, but there’s no way the Rangers get past Carolina without Artemi Panarin at his creative, dynamic best. Though he did put up three goals and four assists against the Penguins, he seemed to disappear at times, committing an uncharacteristic number of turnovers, struggling in his own end and failing to dominate the puck as he does when he’s firing on all cylinders.
Panarin should, in theory, not be matched against Carolina’s checking line, and he’ll need to leverage that potential advantage – especially if Kreider, Zibanejad and Vatrano run into the same problems that the Bruins’ top forward unit did. Panarin managed only an assist and was a minus-3 in the four games against the ‘Canes this season. That won’t come close to cutting it now. Carolina provides opponents with little time and space in its own zone, and Panarin will have to find a way to maintain puck possession against that aggressive defensive posture in order to deliver his pinpoint lateral passes to teammates.
3. Rangers Defense, Ryan Reaves vs. Andrei Svechnikov
The Blueshirts had trouble with the powerful forecheck of Andrei Svechnikov throughout the season series, failing to neutralize his speed and size, which led to some prime opportunities to pound Rangers defensemen in their own zone. Svechnikov recorded four points in the four games and recorded 13 hits. It’s up to Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller, Ryan Lindgren and Braden Schneider, the Rangers’ most physical blueliners, to match that intensity level and perhaps get Svechnikov, an emotional player, off his game.
A few hard hits from Reaves, who delivered 24 of them against Pittsburgh, might also help blunt the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Svechnikov’s effectiveness. Successfully doing so would minimize a major facet of Carolina’s attack.
4. All of the Rangers vs. Ex-Teammates Tony DeAngelo, Brady Skjei
Can the Blueshirts get DeAngelo and Skjei to revert back to the forms that led to them being shipped out of town? Both players have evolved since joining the Hurricanes, with DeAngelo recording 51 points in just 64 games along with a career-best plus-30 rating this season, and Skjei posting a career high-tying 39 points and plus-22 mark, doubling his previous best.
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Still, DeAngelo, whose hotheaded nature played a big role in his departure from New York after last season, is sure to be amped for this date with his former team. The Rangers should look to exploit that element of DeAngelo’s game – which other teams have done in the past – and his potential desire for revenge in order to limit his impact.
Skjei’s penchant for turnovers and unsteady play, which played a part in the Rangers trading their 2012 first-round draft pick to Carolina before the 2020 trade deadline, has largely been a non-issue during his time with the Hurricanes. The Blueshirts have to hope that consistently pressuring Skjei while he has the puck might bring back the player who struggled in New York after an extremely promising 2016-17 season.
5. Igor Shesterkin vs. Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck, Teuvo Teravainen, Etc.
The Rangers have leaned heavily on their rising young star in net all season, and they’ll likely ask Igor Shesterkin for more than they ever have before in this series. The Blueshirts won’t be able to advance past the Hurricanes with Shesterkin playing at all below the form that should make him the runaway winner of the Vezina Trophy this season.
Shesterkin, who seemed to grow from his early struggles in the Penguins series, didn’t perform well against the Hurricanes in two starts in 2021-22, giving up seven goals in a pair of losses. Aho, Carolina’s splendid top center, scored two of those to lead the effort of his team’s top forwards in those games. Shesterkin – who’s bound to hear plenty of derisive “Igor” chants at PNC Arena after Pittsburgh fans rained them down on him during their three home games in the series – will need to flip the script in this series.
Rangers’ Ability to Adapt to Hurricanes’ Style Will be Tested
The Hurricanes just keep coming, wearing down opponents with their skill, speed and jagged play. The Blueshirts were on their heels far too often against them, losing three times by a combined 14-8 score and taking the other one 2-0 only because backup goalie Alexander Georgiev withstood a 44-shot onslaught. Did the Rangers learn anything from that season series, enough to formulate a game plan effective enough to overcome the Hurricanes?
What seems certain is that they’ll have to hold strong in the face of more stretches in which Carolina will dominate play. The Hurricanes are just too good and too aggressive to be shut down. Getting the puck out of their own zone effectively – something at which the Rangers often struggled this season – moving it quickly, establishing a forecheck and being able to cycle in the offensive zone will be critical. The Blueshirts simply didn’t do any of those things well against the Hurricanes this season. Being opportunistic in looking for odd-man rushes against the Hurricanes, who have a tendency to yield plenty of those due to their all-out offensive style, could also prove to be the key.
Rendering the regular-season series a footnote will mean the Rangers came out on top in critical individual matchups. Failing to do so will mean an end to their season – and perhaps a pretty quick one if they can’t raise their games to the level at which Carolina played against them in 2021-22.
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