Exploring the Rangers’ Potential 2022 First-Round Playoff Opponents

The New York Rangers are in the mix for one of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division and have been in the middle of a close race with the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals. The Rangers will match up in the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs against either the Hurricanes, Penguins, or Capitals.

If the Rangers defeat their first-round opponent, they will advance to face the other remaining team in the Metro during the second round of the postseason. Playoff hockey is intense and exciting, but an extra layer is added when two franchises within the same division compete in a postseason series. The Rangers and Penguins’ last game on March 29 was a close game with an exhilarating final two minutes in regulation, with the end of the third period akin to a postseason contest. Let’s take a look at the three Rangers’ division competitors and they would fare against each in a potential series.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The Rangers and Penguins have swapped between second and third in the Metro. The Rangers are surging and are a few points behind the Hurricanes for first in the division with a month left in the regular season, but I’m still predicting a first-round series between the Rangers and Penguins.

How the Rangers Win

The Rangers look rejuvenated since the trade deadline acquisitions of Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp, while Tyler Motte brings speed to the Rangers’ bottom-six. With Kaapo Kakko and Kevin Rooney on injured reserve (IR), Vatrano and Copp have filled in admirably.

Chris Kreider has had the best season of his career during his 10th season. He is always in the front of the opposing net looking for scoring opportunities. If the Penguins struggle to limit his offensive ability, it will be a long series for Pittsburgh. The Rangers’ leading scorer is streaky, but his 46 goals have proven he has the talent to be more consistent offensively.

Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Adam Fox are three of the best players at passing the puck to create scoring opportunities, but they can each score goals as well. Panarin and Zibanejad can open up chances for their linemates at even strength or on the power play (PP), so that poses a problem for the Penguins.

How the Penguins Win

Jarry dealt with his fair share of criticism after last season, and it appeared the Penguins were going to be in the market for another goalie. However, the organization retained his services as its starting netminder this year. He has made a difference in a year in which Sidney Crosby missed the start of the season, and Evgeni Malkin did not play until mid-January.

Tristan Jarry Pittsburgh Penguins
Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Penguins have been a playoff contender on an annual basis since the trio of Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang have played together. Many experts predicted the Penguins would decline this year, but that has not happened. The lack of playoff success since the second consecutive championship in 2017 will serve as motivation for the Penguins to make a run at another Stanley Cup.

Related: Penguins’ Entire Lineup Boosted With Rakell Trade

Trade deadline acquisition Rickard Rakell has three goals and two assists in six games for the Penguins. His addition adds depth to a solid core that also features Jake Guentzel, Jeff Carter, and Bryan Rust. Guentzel will be looking to redeem himself by having a good postseason after his struggles in last year’s playoff series loss to the New York Islanders. These four players can help the Penguins’ chances of advancing far in the postseason by playing well and taking pressure off of Crosby and Malkin.

The series will be decided by who is the better goaltender between Shesterkin and Jarry. The Rangers dominated the Penguins, 5-1, on March 25, but the teams have played two close games over the past month. They will face off one more time on April 7. I think a series between these two teams will go the distance and need to be decided in seven games.

Prediction: Rangers win in seven games

Washington Capitals

The opening night matchup back in October contained anticipation after the incident involving Tom Wilson that ensued during the game between the franchises on May 3, 2021. However, there was not much physicality, and the Capitals defeated the Rangers 5-1. The other regular-season game that took place between the organizations on Feb. 24 involved the Rangers redeeming themselves in a 4-1 win. The Rangers and Capitals conclude their respective regular seasons against one another on April 29.

How the Rangers Win

The Rangers need to neutralize Alex Ovechkin, who is having a fantastic year in his 17th NHL season. He is going to get his chances as there is only so much opponents can do in limiting his offensive ability. But the Rangers are capable of matching the Capitals’ offense, especially with the additions of Vatrano and Copp.

The Rangers have an advantage on special teams, as they have performed well on the power play this season. The Capitals and Rangers’ penalty-killing (PK) units are nearly even. But due to the Capitals’ talent on offense, the Rangers need to play good team defense to make the series more manageable for Shesterkin.

How the Capitals Win

Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are one of the top duos in the NHL on the man advantage. The Capitals have been impacted by the lengthy absences of both Backstrom and T.J. Oshie offensively and on the PP. The young Rangers need to be aware of how the Capitals’ veteran players can take control of a playoff series due to their collective postseason experiences.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson have stepped up for the Capitals during the injury-plagued seasons for Backstrom and Oshie. Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Conor Sheary will need to provide consistent offensive support for the veteran core over a playoff series. If the Capitals force the young Rangers players to make mistakes in transition, they could cause difficulties for New York.

John Carlson plays a similar role for the Capitals that Fox does for the Rangers. The Capitals defenseman is another key veteran for the club who creates offensive opportunities from the blue line and is another core member whom the Rangers need to limit offensively in order to win the series.

Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette prefers to split playing time evenly between two goaltenders, so Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have a good chance to split playing time in a series. The Rangers need to gain an advantage against both goaltenders to make the Capitals vulnerable at the position. Due to the Rangers’ increase in physicality, their improvements offensively made from the deadline, and the reliable Shesterkin in goal, New York has the edge over the Capitals in a seven-game series.

Prediction: Rangers win in six games

Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes have been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference for the majority of 2021-22. Despite losing free agent Dougie Hamilton last offseason, they still have a strong defensive core. Tony DeAngelo, a former Ranger, signed a one-year contract with the Hurricanes after a falling out with his former team. He has exceeded expectations and has played like a top-two defenseman for the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes defeated the Rangers on Jan. 21, 6-3. They outplayed the Rangers through the first two periods, which was the deciding factor in the game’s outcome. The Rangers were outshot by a large margin but managed to secure a 2-0 win on March 20 against the Hurricanes. If it weren’t for the outstanding play of backup Alexandar Georgiev, the Rangers would have lost another game to the Hurricanes. The two teams face off on April 12 & 26 before the conclusion of the regular season.

How the Rangers Win

The Rangers will need to be playing their best hockey, as the Hurricanes represent their toughest opponent in the Metro. They need to withstand the onslaught of the Hurricanes’ ability to be competitive throughout their four lines. The hope is the Rangers’ additions at the trade deadline and the pending returns of Kakko and Rooney increase their chances to compete with the Hurricanes.

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Gallant needs to be flexible in his line combinations if there is a lack of production. The Rangers need to match the Hurricanes’ ability to take over a game offensively. Their team defense also needs to limit turnovers coming out of their end and within the neutral zone. Shesterkin needs to be flawless versus the Hurricanes in order for the Rangers to defeat Carolina in the playoffs.

How the Hurricanes Win

The Hurricanes have former Jack Adams Award winner Rod Brind’Amour leading them behind the bench. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and Vincent Trocheck represent the core of the Hurricanes, and they pose a threat collectively that can secure the Stanley Cup for the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes can generate numerous offensive chances on any given shift as seen in the March 20 matchup against the Rangers. Unless Shesterkin can be a magician in the net for a potential seven-game series, they will not win versus the Hurricanes if they are unable to prevent Carolina’s potential offensive outbursts. Frederik Andersen has been exceptional as the Hurricanes’ starting goaltender in 2021-22, which can negate the advantage of having Shesterkin. The Hurricanes have very good special teams as well, with the league’s best PK unit.

Prediction: Hurricanes win in six games

The Rangers have improved in 2021-22 from previous years. Gallant is a candidate to win the Jack Adams Award, as his presence has made a difference in turning the Rangers into a contender in the Eastern Conference. The team has exceeded expectations as they will finish within the top three in the Metro. But if they play the Hurricanes in the playoffs, Carolina has a clear advantage. The Hurricanes are capable of winning a championship this year, while the Rangers are still one to two years from being an elite contender assuming they progress after this season.

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