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Play-In Preview: Rangers vs. Hurricanes

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How do these two Metropolitan teams match up?

Carolina Hurricanes v Detroit Red Wings Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

The New York Rangers swept the Carolina Hurricanes 4-0-0 in the 2019-20 regular season. One could take that as a sign that the Rangers should be favorites for their play-in series against Carolina. Interestingly enough, Micah Blake McCurdy’s model gives the Rangers a 55 percent chance of prevailing in the five-game play-in series which begins on Aug. 1. But, Carolina finished with two more points (81) than the Rangers in the standings despite playing two fewer games, so they had the better overall record.

The Rangers and Canes share a division, but there isn’t much of a rivalry here. These franchises have never met in the playoffs. But what this match-up lacks in history that would help cultivate a playoff atmosphere for this unprecedented play-in series it makes up for in other story lines. These teams have traded three times with each other since Apr. 30, 2019, including a deadline deal that sent Brady Skjei to Carolina for a first round pick.

Hockey - NHL - Rangers vs. Hurricans Photo by Scott Bales/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

So, why did the Rangers have the success they did against Carolina in the regular season? Let’s take a look at the season series and more to help set the stage for the play-in series.

Season Series

The TL;DR, straight-to-the-point version of this is that the Hurricanes’ goaltending was exceptionally bad against the Rangers. Oh, and Panarin and Zibanejad were just bonkers good, especially on the power play.

Carolina’s goalies managed an .873 save percentage at 5-on-5 (180.83 TOI) and an .836 Sv% in all situations against the Rangers in the season series. Even in a four-game sample, that’s brutal. For context: against the NHL as a whole, Carolina’s goalies posted a .912 Sv% at 5-on-5 and a .903 Sv% in all situations. So, Carolina’s most glaring weakness all season long was also their biggest issue in their four games against New York.

The Rangers, on the hand, enjoyed outstanding goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist (.947 Sv% in three starts) and Igor Shesterkin (.931 Sv% in one start) against the Hurricanes. Shesterkin got the last start of the season series on Feb. 21 in the Rangers’ 5-3 win in Raleigh. Lundqvist stopped at least 39 pucks in all three of his starts including 45 on Nov. 7. That was his highest single-game save total in 2019-20.

The Rangers outscored Carolina by a margin of 17-9 — inflated by two empty-netters — but were out-shot 161 to 104 (all situations). That’s a massive shot differential. But, for those who are familiar with team trends in the shot share this year, that differential may not be too surprising. Carolina ranked 3rd in the league (54.4 CF%); the Rangers ranked 28th (48.81 CF%). The Hurricanes regularly out-shot their opponents and the Rangers were regularly out-shot.

Against the Rangers, the Canes dominated the shot share to the tune of a 58.73 CF% (score and venue adjusted) and had an edge in xGF (9.71 to 8.25) at 5-on-5. So, generally speaking, Carolina was the better team at 5-on-5. The definition of “better” here meaning that the Canes attempted more shots and were more efficient at creating the events that tend to result in goals at 5-on-5. But they got swept by the Rangers. Isn’t hockey fun?

New York scored first in three of the four meetings, but we shouldn’t overvalue the influence of scoring the first goal in the game. They also had a lead entering the third period of all four meetings. The major deciding factors were the Rangers going 5-for-15 on the power play (Carolina went 2-for-16) and having significantly better goaltending.

Key Performers

  • Artemiy Panarin: No surprises here. Panarin led all skaters in the season series with nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) and seven primary points. He averaged 18:30 TOI/GP and put seven shots on net against Carolina. Three of the Breadman’s nine points in the season series were picked up on the power play, which means he was a terror at even strength. It’s hard to overstate just how important Panarin is to the Rangers’ offense and overall success. If the Hurricanes can find a way to smother him defensively and limit his influence, they will drastically improve their chances in the series.
  • Mika Zibanejad: Zib’s four goals in the season series was the most by any skater. He was also second only to Panarin in both points and primary points. Three of those four goals were buried on the power play, but the most memorable one wasn’t.
  • Sebastian Aho: In the season series Aho had three goals, 13 SOG, and skated an average of 20:54 TOI/GP. No other Hurricane had more than one goal in the season series. It’s worth noting that Aho had 38 goals in 68 games during the regular season, so he is definitely the trigger that the Rangers need to watch at even strength and on the power play.
  • Jaccob Slavin: Slavin led the Hurricanes in scoring with four points — all assists — against the Rangers this year. He was having a career year in terms of scoring (36 points in 68 games) before the pandemic shut things down and was averaging 23:24 TOI/GP; he averaged 22:41 in four appearances against the Rangers. Expect him to share a lot of ice time with Panarin.
Chart by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), data from moneypuck.com

New Faces

In addition to picking up Brady Skjei from the Rangers, the Hurricanes also acquired veteran defenseman Sami Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils and center Vincent Trocheck from the Florida Panthers. In order to bolster their blue line and make a big upgrade at the center position, Carolina gave up Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen, Janne Kuokkanen, Chase Priskie, former Ranger Fredrik Claesson, a 1st round pick, and a conditional 4th round pick. Of that group, the only regulars on the roster were Haula and Wallmark. They both went to Florida in the Trocheck deal.

However, the biggest “addition” to the lineup for Carolina in this series has to be Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton suffered a fractured fibula on Jan. 16, so he wasn’t on the ice for the fourth game of the season series against the Rangers. He had 14 goals and 26 assists in 47 games before that big injury. It’s also worth mentioning that Vatanen was injured at the time he was traded to Carolina, but he is expected to be good to go.

Carolina’s Phase 3 Roster [source]

Forwards: Sebastian Aho, Ryan Dzingel, Warren Foegele, Morgan Geekie, Steven Lorentz, Jordan Martinook, Max McCormick, Brock McGinn, Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal, Ryan Suzuki, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck, Justin Williams

Defensemen: Jake Bean, Joel Edmundson, Haydn Fleury, Jake Gardiner, Dougie Hamilton, Brady Skjei, Jaccob Slavin, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Sami Vatanen

Goalies: Anton Forsberg, Petr Mrazek, Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer

NHL: JUL 16 Hurricanes Training Camp Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How They Match Up

The Hurricanes have a better blue line and more center depth than the Rangers, but the Rangers have significantly better goaltending and Artemiy Panarin. The Canes having Vincent Trocheck as a third line center is nice, but the Rangers having Panarin is, well, nicer.

One of the biggest storylines to keep an eye on during Carolina’s training camp and in their exhibition game against the Capitals on Jul. 29 will be their defensive pairings. Assistant coach Dean Chynoweth manages the defense and penalty kill for Carolina. Towards the end of the regular season, the Hurricanes pairs were Edmundson-Slavin, Fleury-Skjei, and Gardiner-van Riemsdyk. Chynoweth and head coach Rod Brind’Amour will want to get Hamilton back in his featured role and work Vatanen into the lineup. Before the injury, Hamilton’s most frequent partner at 5-on-5 is Slavin.

Brett Presce isn’t expected to be ready for the play-in series after undergoing shoulder surgery on March 5.

Carolina’s top line of Teravainen-Aho-Svechnikov is one of the best and most promising in the league, but the Rangers’ trio of Fast-Strome-Panarin had a better GF% (72.04 vs 64.78) and xGF% (61.21 vs 55.45). Yes, that’s how good Panarin is. The Blueshirts’ KZB line (Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich) is another big line to watch in this series. Injuries limited the trio to just 283:48 TOI at 5-on-5 this year, but in that time they rolled over opponents with a 54.65 xGF%. With Kreider healthy, we should expect him to be on the ice with Zibanejad a lot at even strength.

One of the most interesting aspects of this series is that we can’t be sure which goalie will start Game 1 for either team. BSB’s Adam Herman recently made a compelling case for why Shesterkin could help the Rangers solve Carolina’s trademark aggressive forecheck, but head coach David Quinn will go with whoever looks the best in training camp.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

Petr Mrazek saw more starts in the regular season, but James Reimer had the better save percentage (.914). Mrazek returned from a concussion to start a game on Mar. 10 before the COVID-19 shutdown, so he might be dealing with even more rust than his peers. The same could be said of Reimer, who hasn’t started a game since Feb. 22 as a result of a lower-body injury. He was traveling with the team prior to the season being put on pause and eventually stopped.

Mrazek started in three of the four games against the Rangers in the regular season, but Reimer had an ugly outing where he allowed five goals on 24 shots in his lone meeting with New York. Regardless of who Brind’Amour and the Canes go with for Game 1, the Rangers definitely will have the edge in net.

NHL: JUL 13 Hurricanes Training Camp Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Prediction

It’s next to impossible to predict the outcome of this series because of, well, everything. All of this is unprecedented and uncertain and there are seemingly countless variables to consider. Who knows which players may or may not be sidelined and deemed “unfit to play” by the time Game 1 arrives or what these teams will look and play like after a short training camp and one exhibition game? There’s even a good chance this whole thing doesn’t get off the ground.

With all of that out of the way, the Rangers have the edge because they have Shesterkin, Panarin, and Chris Kreider is healthy which gives them two dangerous lines at even strength. Carolina is a damn good hockey team with a tremendous blue line, a ferocious forecheck, and plenty of speed, but you need reliable goaltending in a playoff series — and that is essentially what this is. There’s no more important position in the sport. Rangers in five.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.