After a pair of seven-game battles that might have brought an end to two Eastern Conference institutions, the second-round series between New York and Carolina is set.
On one side, the Carolina Hurricanes, are fresh off taking down Boston in what might have been the final playoff run for Bruins legend Patrice Bergeron. On the other, the New York Rangers outlasted the Pittsburgh Penguins, who might’ve seen Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang take the ice for the last time as teammates.
The Canes and Rangers have crossed paths just once in the playoffs before, but you don’t have to dig too far to find that lone bit of history. It was just a couple years back in 2020, when the league added a Qualifying Round to the post-season format, that the Canes swept the Rangers 3-0.
Both teams have continued their ascent since. The Rangers have found themselves in a perfect storm this year, seeing young prospects begin to thrive, their leading stars put up career years, and Igor Shesterkin put forth a season for the ages. In Raleigh, the Canes have simply kept building on momentum that’s been picking up steam year over year, the club continuing to add talent and roll forward.
The two teams met four times during the regular season, the Canes getting the upper hand with three wins in those meetings. Carolina dealt New York a shellacking in the first, a 6-3 win. The Rangers struck back with a 2-0 shutout in the next, before the Canes put up 4-2 and 4-3 wins over the next two meetings.
While the lone playoff battle between the two suggests the history between these clubs might be thin, the presence of No. 77 on Carolina’s back end ensures the opposite. After leaving New York in disgrace following more off-ice drama than the Rangers could stomach, Tony DeAngelo now meets his former club in the second round, wearing Carolina colours.
Who gets the last laugh?
The Story of How the Hurricanes Got Here:
It didn’t come easy for Rod Brind’Amour’s club. But they gutted it out just as their coach would’ve in his own playing days. Heading into the post-season without their No. 1 netminder, then temporarily losing their No. 2 — a la their current foe’s first-round opponent — Carolina continued to push forward and made it out alive.
It certainly seemed like it would be a breezy first round early on. The Canes dominated Boston through Games 1 and 2, outscoring them 10-3, looking like they had the B’s number. And then the veteran Bruins turned around and did the same to them in Games 3 and 4, taking both and outscoring Carolina 10-4. That odd trend continued through the next two games — a 5-1 Canes win, a 5-2 Bruins win — until Game 7 arrived.
And when that all-important finale was won, it was the most unlikely of characters who had willed them through — Max Domi, who’d managed just seven points over the final 19 games of the season since the trade to Raleigh, but rose to the moment with two goals and a helper on another as his club battled to a 3-2 victory. That’s a good sign for Carolina, whose offensive success has come from all corners of the lineup so far — something they’ll need to continue if they want to keep Igor Shesterkin looking human in these playoffs.
The Story of How the Rangers Got Here:
It was a wild, wild ride that delivered the Rangers to the second round. That their first test went seven games is unsurprising given it took a triple-overtime marathon just to finish off Game 1. And through the first four games of the series, the Rangers looked down and out — save for a 5-2 win in Game 2, they’d watched the Pens take that exhausting series-opener and then dust them with two dominant showings in Games 3 and 4, piling up 14 goals and pushing the Rangers to the brink.
Most troublesome for the Blueshirts was the play of Shesterkin, who looked far from the form that will almost certainly win him the Vezina Trophy this season.
But the Rangers battled back. Playing a brutally hard-nosed game from the opening puck-drop to the final whistle, they tilted the series with physicality before their skill caught up with them and their goaltender found his game. The Pens found themselves without their captain and lead offensive threat, Sidney Crosby; without top-pairing defender Brian Dumoulin; without top-six deadline addition Rickard Rakell; and with third-stringer Louis Domingue manning the cage.
Amid the chaos of that roster turnstyle, New York stole two games back, keeping their season alive and putting the Penguins on the back foot. While Crosby, Rakell and starter Tristan Jarry all returned for the do-or-die Game 7, it wasn’t enough to slow the Rangers — particularly Zibanejad, who’d found his game once he was able to escape the matchup with Crosby, and kept it rolling after No. 87 returned by scoring a crucial tying goal late in the series finale. Artemi Panarin iced it in overtime, putting all three of the Rangers key offensive stars — Panarin, Zibanejad and Chris Kreider — on the board with goals in the most important game of their season.
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Hurricanes X-Factor: Antti Raanta
As was the case with the Canes’ first-round battle, and as will likely be the case for this whole run, it all comes down to Raanta. Crucial to the Canes’ success this season, as they finished as division champs for the second straight year, was their ability to keep pucks out of the net. They were the league’s best in that regard, putting up a ridiculous +76 goal differential in the process as Raanta and starter Frederik Andersen won the William Jennings. But now Andersen is on the sidelines, and the team’s success will rise and fall with dutiful backup Raanta. He did all that was asked of him through Round 1, putting up a dominant .927 save percentage in the six games he played (young Pyotr Kochetkov had to check in for one tilt after a collision forced Raanta to the sidelines too). If he can keep rolling, the Canes have enough dotted throughout the rest of their roster to push this run forward. But it all depends on No. 32.
Rangers X-Factor: Mika Zibanejad
If the Rangers faithful are looking for reason to worry heading into this second-round series — here’s one: In every game New York played against the Canes this season, the Rangers’ star sniper, Kreider, scored a goal. And in three of those contests, it wasn’t enough. While the Rangers have plenty of offensive talent up front and on the back end, the Canes finished well above them this season in overall offensive success — and, as a bonus, were the only team to finish with fewer goals-against per game. If the Rangers want to get to the third round, it’ll take more than Kreider. The good news, though, is that the Garden just watched Zibanejad come alive over the latter half of the team’s first-round bout. No. 93’s always been one for scoring in bunches, and if he can keep putting pucks in the net through this next slate of games, that could be the difference.
Game 1: Wednesday, May 18, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet East, Ontario and Pacific)
Game 2: Friday, May 20, 8 p.m. (Sportsnet East, Ontario and Pacific)
Game 3: Sunday, May 22, 3:30 p.m. (Sportsnet and Sportsnet 360)
Game 4: Tuesday, May 24, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet East, Ontario and Pacific)
*Game 5: Thursday, May 26, TBD
*Game 6: Saturday, May 28, TBD
*Game 7: Monday, May 30, TBD