The New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes are set to face-off in the Qualifying Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a best-of-five series scheduled for Aug. 1. Without a doubt, it will be one of the most interesting series to follow in the early stages of the playoffs. With that being said, let’s take a look at the best players to skate in this series.
5. Igor Shesterkin
While he barely made this list after long consideration, Igor Shesterkin might just be the biggest X-factor in this playoff matchup. Despite Rangers’ head coach David Quinn saying that he is unlikely to release the starting goalie decision, Shesterkin is the odds-on favorite to take the starting job over teammates Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev. And, rightfully so.
The rookie goaltender had himself a remarkable start to his NHL career with 10 wins in his first 12 starts in net. Shesterkin’s stellar positioning, poise and calm demeanor was evident in all of his starts for New York. The Russian netminder managed a 2.51 goals against average, while having a .932 save percentage on top of that. His strong play in net has the potential to take over hockey games. He is the most talented goaltender in this series, and his numbers show it.
4. Dougie Hamilton
Carolina has one of the most formidable defenses in the NHL today, and that’s in part due to the consistent play from Dougie Hamilton. The 6-foot-6 defenseman is a very talented and shifty skater for his size, which makes him so versatile on the offensive and defensive ends. He plays significant minutes, averaging around 23 minutes of ice time per contest. Hamilton may have only played in 47 games this year, but his offensive presence is certainly felt.
He finished with 40 points in the regular season for the Hurricanes, which is good enough for 4th-most on the Carolina roster and tied-18th for points in the NHL from a defenseman. If Hamilton is clicking on both ends of the ice, he will certainly be a huge impact player in this series for the higher-seeded team.
3. Mika Zibanejad
Rangers’ center Mika Zibanejad is growing into an elite first-liner for the Blueshirts. The Swede led the entire NHL in goals per game this season, as he potted an astounding 41 goals in 57 games. He didn’t just find his stride as the season progressed, he purely dominated the ice on a nightly basis. Since Feb. 16, the Rangers played a total of 13 games. Zibanejad managed to score a mere 17 goals in that span, including scoring five goals against the Washington Capitals in an overtime victory on March 5.
Zibanejad is arguably the best goal scorer in this series, and he’s an even bigger threat on the power play. The 27-year-old accumulated 15 power-play goals and 27 total power-play points this season. He’s a threat from everywhere in the offensive zone, and the Hurricanes will surely make Zibanejad one their focal points defensively.
2. Sebastian Aho
Sebastian Aho is one of the most underrated and overlooked centers in the entire league. While flying under the radar this season, he almost managed to average a point-per-game with 66 points in 68 games. With 38 goals to his name this season, Aho has become the focal point for Carolina’s offense with the next highest goal total on the team coming from Andrei Svechnikov (24).
The Rangers will need to draw their attention towards Aho in the defensive zone. He also loves to throw the puck to the net, as he finished the 2019-20 season with 206 shots on goal, which ranks 12th in the NHL. Aho is an offensive force who will surely impact the outcome of each game played in this series.
1. Artemi Panarin
Was there really any question as to which player would be the top of this list? After signing a seven-year mega-deal worth $81.5 million, Artemi Panarin has put in a Hart Trophy-caliber season for New York. He finished tied with the most points out of any player in the Eastern Conference, tying Boston’s David Pastrnak with 95 points in the regular season. There’s not much more to say about Panarin that hasn’t already been said by the hockey world.
He led the NHL in even-strength points with 71 and even has the second-best plus-minus rating in the league with a plus-36. Without Panarin’s stellar on-ice performances on a nightly basis, it’s tough to envision where the Rangers would be today. Undoubtedly, the Russian winger is the most talented and impactful player in this series.
There is no shortage of star power in this series, and both teams will look to create some magic on the ice in Toronto. The matchup between New York and Carolina is a tight one and these five players are looking to help lead their respective teams past the qualifying round.