Every post-season, there emerges one sneaky-good team that no one wants to run into in the playoffs — a team that, despite just barely sneaking into the playoff picture, has clubs thinking twice (and often too much) about how to approach them.
Just last spring, it was the Carolina Hurricanes who took that title, storming into the post-season via Wild Card 1 and surging all the way to the Conference Final after nine years of failing to make the playoffs.
This year, that team might just be the New York Rangers, who benefit from the expanded return-to-play format and could turn the opportunity into a run of success.
It’s only fitting that the two should meet for a best-of-five battle as the NHL officially resumes play on Aug. 1, with Carolina looking to take the next step as legitimate contenders and New York doing everything it can to declare the rebuild complete and contend themselves.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Carolina Hurricanes: 54.30 CF% (3rd in NHL), 50.90 GF% (12th), 91.22 SV% (26th), 8.11 SH% (17th), 0.993 PDO (24th)
New York Rangers: 46.73 CF% (28th in NHL), 51.19 GF% (10th), 92.01 SV% (12th), 8.89 SH% (7th), 1.009 PDO (6th)
Carolina Hurricanes: 22.3 PP% (8th in NHL), 84.0 PK% (4th), 217 GF (15th), 193 GA (9th)
New York Rangers: 22.9 PP% (7th in NHL), 77.4 PK% (23rd), 233 GF (5th), 220 GA (24th)
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
Carolina Hurricanes: 0-4-0
New York Rangers: 4-0-0
When the schedule-makers lined up Game 1 of this Rangers-Hurricanes series at noon Eastern on Aug. 1, they pretty much guaranteed the first game of the league’s official return to play would also be one of the fastest-paced 60 minutes to welcome fans into what will be a wild few months of hockey.
At the time of the season hiatus in March, the New York Rangers weren’t just playing their best hockey — they were playing like one of the best hockey teams in the league, a mountain of momentum backing them up as they sprinted down the stretch in search of the post-season. Leading goal-scorer Mika Zibanejad was riding a six-game scoring streak when the league shut down, netting 11 goals in that time including an otherworldly five-goal game against Washington on March 5; Artemi Panarin was barreling towards point No. 100; Rookies Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin had the city buzzing. When you’ve got a five-month hiatus wedged between games, it’s tough to give anyone an edge based on regular-season momentum, but the Rangers’ chemistry on offence sets up the young squad to hit the ground running, making them a dangerous underdog.
But if there’s a group of defenders well-equipped to handle a lethal one-two offensive punch, you’ll find it in Carolina. While the Hurricanes also boast an exciting fleet of young, fast forwards in Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov and Co., this is a team whose foundation can be found on the blue line. Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton hold the keys to this corps and drive special teams, though Hamilton has missed the past few practices and it’s not clear when he’ll be game-ready. And while the ever-underrated Brett Pesce won’t be ready to suit up against the Rangers, newcomer Sami Vatanen could be the secret weapon in his place.
Carolina Hurricanes X-Factor: Petr Mrazek
Carolina’s elite defence eases the pressure on the crease, but Mrazek is still going to have to be at his absolute best when facing one of the top-scoring clubs in the league. The netminder stood tall in the playoffs last spring until he fell to injury in Round 2, with backup Curtis McElhinney coming through as the hero and writing his name into the Hurricanes’ Cinderella story. James Reimer is in that backup position this time around.
New York Rangers X-Factor: Artemi Panarin
There’s a reason the rebuilding Rangers are “rebuilding” no more — his name is Artemi Panarin. When last summer’s biggest free agent chose New York as his destination, he took a promising team on a smart trajectory and put it on a fast track to contention, posting a career-high 95 points in just 69 games and writing his name into the top three finalists for both the Ted Lindsay Award and Hart Trophy. Against the Hurricanes, Panarin has been particularly potent. Four meetings yielded four multi-point games for a combined three goals and six assists as his side won all four matchups.
The biggest question facing the Hurricanes is: Will Dougie Hamilton be healthy?
Hamilton was midway through the best season of his career when he suffered a broken left fibula in January, which left the Hurricanes without their top offensive defenceman and power-play quarterback. With the extra recovery time allowed by the hiatus, Hamilton was back in good health for training camp but appeared to suffer a setback when he left practice early on Day 10 and missed the final few days. The Hurricanes proved they could survive without him, but his presence will be key if they’re to thrive against New York.
The biggest question facing the Rangers is: Who’s going to start in net?
Igor Shesterkin’s NHL arrival in January suggested a new era opening up in the Blueshirts’ blue paint. His strong numbers — 10-2-0 record, 2.52 GAA, .932 SV% — had the rookie appear to leapfrog third-year netminder Alexandar Georgiev in the depth chart as the new heir apparent to King Henrik’s throne, making his way into the starter’s gig right around the time of the league hiatus.