RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The beginning of August, oddly enough, marks the beginning of the NHL playoffs. The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers kick off the play-in action as hockey aims to finish out the season after a nearly four-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The best-of-five series, which begins Saturday at noon, is among the most intriguing matchups in the play-in round. The Hurricanes a year ago made a run to the Eastern Conference Final that surprised many. The Rangers have had their rebuild kicked into overdrive by the signing of winger Artemi Panarin and the emergence of Mika Zibanejad.
New York has had Carolina’s number for the better part of the last decade. The Rangers are 15-5-0 against the ‘Canes in the last five years alone. But does that really matter? The ‘Canes were 0-3-1 against Washington in the regular season last year, but went on to eliminate the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. Anyways, the pandemic forced the season to be put on hold in mid-March, so it’s hard to draw much meaning from trends that are almost four months old.
Carolina goes into the series with what should be the advantage in defensive talent. Even with questions surrounding the health of Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton, the ‘Canes have trade-deadline acquisitions in Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei to shore things up. Of course, much depends on how they and Vincent Trocheck acclimate given their limited time with the team.
Up front, the ‘Canes have the offensive weapons to keep up with most anyone in the NHL. Their top line with Sebastian Aho centering Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen was a consistent fixture throughout the regular season. Jordan Staal and Justin Williams bring a hard-working veteran presence to the second line. Carolina will hope Nino Niederreiter can consistency that has eluded him throughout much of his tenure with the team and that rookie Martin Necas can build the 16 goals and 20 assists he had in 64 games.
Much of the same can be said of the Rangers and their offensive weapons. Panarin and Zibanejad each drive their own line to make up one of the strongest top-six groups in the NHL. Panarin led the team with 32 goals and 63 assists in 69 games. Zibanejad had 41 goals and 34 helpers in 57 games.
While a healthy Carolina blue line may have the edge, the Rangers have plenty of young talent on the backend that can contribute on offense. Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox combined for 98 points.
Goaltending may be where this series is decided. Petr Mrazek showed last year during Carolina’s run that he’s as good as they come when he gets hot, but reaching that level consistently has never been a strength of his.
But New York may look to a relatively unproven netminder in Igor Shesterkin. He was 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage in a dozen appearances this season. If it doesn’t work with him in net, the Rangers do have veteran Henrik Lundqvist to turn to.
Both coaches have their work cut out. With it being a best-of-five series, there’s little time to grow into the matchup. Whichever team hits the ground running will have a decisive advantage.
Alyssa Rae: Carolina in four
Michael Prunka: New York in five