The New York Rangers will face off against the Hurricanes, a beatable opponent, in the qualifying round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Carolina Hurricanes were one of only two NHL teams to vote against the proposed 24-team playoff format. Jordan Martinook, one of the Canes’ alternate captains, explained that he and his team believed this configuration was unfair because they felt they shouldn’t have to participate in the initial round.
But did they genuinely feel that the format was unjust, or did they just want to avoid a qualifying-round matchup with their kryptonite — the New York Rangers?
If the latter is the case, I don’t blame them. Their fear of facing the Blueshirts is warranted.
Winning 31 of their last 37 meetings with the Hurricanes, the Rangers have simply dominated them in recent years. David Quinn’s squad swept the 2019-20 four-game season series in commanding fashion, yielding just nine goals and scoring 17. Dating back to last season, they’ve won five straight against Carolina.
All things considered, this isn’t only a favorable draw for the Blueshirts, but given the circumstances, the Canes are truly their ideal opponent. The six teams participating in the Eastern Conference qualifying round that are seeded higher than the Rangers include the Penguins, Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets, Islanders, Panthers, and Hurricanes. If Quinn had the opportunity to select his opponent out of this group, he’d undoubtedly pick Carolina.
Aside from the recent success, the Rangers simply match up better with them than any of the other aforementioned squads.
The Blueshirts’ weakness is their defense. At times, the Rangers can defend with the best of them, but there were too many nights in which the goaltender was hung out to dry. This season, New York allowed 3.14 goals per game (tied for 23rd in the NHL). They additionally surrendered 34 shots on goal per contest, the second-most in the league.
Fortunately, they won’t be tasked with slowing down a potent group of forwards in the qualifying round. Although the Canes’ 3.19 goals per game ranked 11th in the NHL, I don’t anticipate the Blueshirts having any major defensive issues in this series considering they’ve given up a combined 10 goals in their five consecutive wins over Carolina. They’ll gladly take their chances stopping the Canes forwards rather than Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
The Hurricanes don’t boast a high-octane offense but do employ a decent forward group. They’re led by three young, up-and-coming individuals in Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, and Andrei Svechnikov, who form the top line. If the Rangers can shut down this trio, they’ll coast to victory, as Carolina lacks depth up front. It’s a talented first line, but I don’t think it’s quite good enough to take over a series.
When it comes to the Rangers’ strength, it’s their offense. This past season, they scored 3.33 goals per game, the fifth-highest mark in the NHL. The Hurricanes were solid defensively though, allowing 2.84 goals per game (tied for 11th in the league). Nevertheless, the Blueshirts should have no trouble scoring. In fact, they netted at least three goals in each meeting with Carolina this season.
While Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton make up an excellent pair, the rest of the Canes’ defense is shaky. Brett Pesce will likely still be out due to a shoulder injury. Therefore, Brady Skjei, Jake Gardiner, and Sami Vatanen — all mistake-prone players — will find themselves in elevated roles.
The Blueshirts possess plenty of offensive firepower, so they should be able to exploit this susceptible defense. Carolina’s main focus will be on slowing down Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, who have tormented them in the past. Panarin has posted 15 points in 16 career games against the Hurricanes. Zibanejad, on the other hand, has notched 27 points in 25 career contests, having tallied more points against the Canes than any other NHL team.
At the end of the day, the main reason I don’t expect the Rangers to struggle offensively is because of the Canes’ goaltending woes.
Carolina will likely turn to Petr Mrazek in the playoffs. He’s coming off a season in which he finished 21-16-2 with a .905 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average. In Mrazek’s seven career starts against the Blueshirts, he’s 3-4-0 with a 3.03 goals-against average and .886 save percentage. He additionally posted a 2.73 goals-against average and .894 save percentage in last year’s playoffs.
Mrazek is certainly beatable and often inconsistent. Unlike the rest of the Eastern Conference’s playoff goaltenders (aside from the Islanders tandem), he’s incapable of stealing his team a series.
Igor Shesterkin should earn the nod for the Rangers, as he’ll look to build off his tremendous late-season momentum. Shesterkin was 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average prior to the league’s stoppage. He even notched 27 saves and led his team to a crucial 5-2 victory in Carolina on Feb. 21. Simply speaking, Shesterkin carries the talent to put the team on his back for an entire series.
A perfect storm is brewing for New York to pull off an upset in the qualifying round. For a Rangers team that holds no issues scoring goals but can struggle defensively, the Hurricanes are a nice matchup as a result of their manageable forward unit, lack of a shutdown defense, and subpar goaltending. Between this and their recent success against the Canes, the Blueshirts look primed to give Carolina a run for its money.
There’s one more way the Rangers could instill even more fear in the Hurricanes: by starting Henrik Lundqvist in net. He’s 33-12-1 in his career against Carolina with a .934 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average.
Will King Henrik get his “Last Dance?” I don’t think so, as I believe the reign of Lundqvist is over. Regardless, the Rangers’ next reign is just commencing, and they find themselves in a position to start it off with a bang.