Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan will see the resumption of games, as the league attempts to accomplish its goal of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup. Exhibition, qualifier and postseason matches are slated to take place during that time. The 24-team tournament is scheduled to begin August 1, with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will feature 16 teams playing eight best-of-five series. There will also be a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine the seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Feel free to check out our Western Conference qualifying round previews if you haven’t done so already. Those include the Edmonton Oilers versus the Chicago Blackhawks, the Nashville Predators against the Arizona Coyotes, the Vancouver Canucks facing off against the Minnesota Wild and the Calgary Flames versus the Winnipeg Jets. We started the Eastern Conference earlier this week with the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Montreal Canadiens and today we will examine the Carolina Hurricanes against the New York Rangers.
The Hurricanes advanced to the Eastern Conference Final last year in the playoffs and finished the 2019-20 season with a mark of 38-25-5 (.596 points percentage) for the No. 6 seed going into the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Carolina got off to a hot start with a record of 8-3-1 in October. After a sluggish November (8-7-0), the Hurricanes went 8-4-1 prior to the calendar turning to 2020. The team was inconsistent afterward, while going 14-11-3, but injuries to key defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce as well as goaltenders Petr Mrazek and James Reimer occurred during that time.
Meanwhile, the Rangers had a hot finish to what was also a roller coaster 2019-20 campaign thanks in large part to a great month of February when the team posted a record of 11-4-0. The club went 14-7-1 following the 2020 NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 25. New York concluded the regular season with a 37-28-5 (.564 points percentage) record to land the No. 11 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers’ point total (79) was their highest in three seasons despite being limited to 70 games.
Mika Zibanejad played a large role in the team’s late-season surge. He topped the NHL with 23 goals and 36 points in 22 games since Jan. 31. Artemi Panarin, who was a big free-agent addition last summer, led the league with 21 assists during that span and tied for third with 27 points across 22 outings. Zibanejad’s career-high total of 41 goals ranked fifth in the NHL, while Panarin placed third in the league with a personal best 95 points in just 69 appearances. Their contributions were the driving force behind New York scoring 3.33 goals for per game played (fifth overall). Additionally, Tony DeAngelo broke out offensively with 53 points, including 15 goals, in 68 matches. Ryan Strome and Pavel Buchnevich had career years as well with 53 and 46 points, respectively.
Carolina placed just outside the top 10 in goals for per game played (3.19) during the regular season. It was less of a jump than the Rangers, which moved up from 24th overall last year, but the Hurricanes did improve from 2.96 goals for per game played in 2018-19. Sebastian Aho (38 goals, 28 assists), Teuvo Teravainen (15 goals, 48 assists) and Andrei Svechnikov (24 goals, 37 assists) surpassed the 60-point plateau during the 2019-20 campaign. Hamilton was having a Norris Trophy caliber year, while contributing 14 goals and 40 points in 47 contests, prior to suffering a broken fibula.
The Hurricanes have a defense corps as deep as any team in the league. The team added Sami Vatanen and former Rangers blueliner Brady Skjei prior to the shutdown of the 2019-20 season. Brett Pesce likely won’t be available until September, but the Hurricanes can lean on Jaccob Slavin and Hamilton could be back as well. New York’s back end isn’t as deep, but they are strong on the right side with DeAngelo, Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba.
The Rangers appear to have an ace up their sleeve between the pipes with Igor Shesterkin, who seized control of the number one job from Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev. It’s unclear who will start in Game 1, but Shesterkin made a strong case for himself. In 12 starts, the rookie netminder went 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. His numbers were far better than Lundqvist and Georgiev. Shesterkin helped to solidify what was a shaky crease situation for the Rangers.
The Hurricanes used multiple goaltenders as well in 2019-20 and were scrambling to find a replacement when Mrazek and Reimer were injured in the same game. However, they are both healthy going into the NHL’s return. Mrazek played more than Reimer during the regular season and he was also the goalie of the choice last year in the playoffs. However, neither one of them produced strong statistics and they will have to be much better in the postseason, especially if New York’s hot offensive play carries over to the qualifying round.
The Rangers have plenty of appeal as a sleeper team going into the Return to Play. The club was playing well prior to the pause, while getting big performances from all their key players. Panarin, who is a finalist for the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, has the potential to be a difference-maker in the series. However, a healthier Carolina club will be tough to defeat. The Hurricanes boast one of the best puck possession teams in the league. They create plenty of opportunities and ranked third overall in the percentage of scoring chances in their favor (53.4%) during five-on-five situations. Carolina also ranked third in the NHL in shots for per game played (33.3). Punching through their defense will be a difficult task for Panarin and Co. and you can expect that shutting them down will be Carolina’s top priority. Can the youthful Rangers become the upstart team that the Hurricanes were a year ago? New York won all four games against Carolina during the regular season, while outscoring them by a 17-9 margin. The Hurricanes will rely on their experience and could advance rather comfortably into the next round if the extended break has cooled off the Rangers.
Players to Watch:
Justin Williams (CAR) - “Mr. Game 7” will have to work his magic slightly faster in this best-of-five series. Williams has made a name for himself by producing in high-pressure situations. He didn’t make his regular-season debut in 2019-20 until Jan. 19 because he was considering retirement, but he made an impact almost immediately and had a productive year. Williams generated eight goals and 11 points in 20 outings. He lit the lamp six times during a five-game goal streak prior to the pause of the campaign due to coronavirus concerns.
Adam Fox (NYR) - Fox gets lost in the conversation sometimes because of the big year that DeAngelo had, but he was part of an excellent rookie class that the NHL had in 2019-20. He accounted for eight goals and 42 points in 70 games, while registering a plus-22 rating and 13 power-play points. Fox moves the puck very well and will be an important player in the offensive attack of the Rangers.
Vincent Trocheck (CAR) - Trocheck only had one goal and one assist in seven outings with the Hurricanes after he was acquired from the Florida Panthers. He had 11 markers and 38 points over 62 matches in 2019-20, which is slightly below his scoring pace from 2018-19. Trocheck has been limited by injuries and he had some trouble getting accustomed to Carolina’s style, but the long break has provided him with ample time to heal and adjust. He could be an impact player for the Hurricanes, while playing alongside Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter or Ryan Dzingel.
Chris Kreider (NYR) - Kreider was third on the Rangers with 24 goals during the regular season. He is fully recovered from a foot injury, which sidelined him six straight games prior to the pause of the 2019-20 campaign. Kreider signed a big seven-year contract extension with the Rangers shortly before getting injured. The NHL’s Return to Play will be a good opportunity for him to prove he is worthy of the team’s faith. Kreider is projected to play alongside Zibanejad and Buchnevich.
Jaccob Slavin (CAR) - Slavin had a personal best 36 points in 68 games during the 2019-20 season. He also led the Hurricanes in time on ice per game played (23:24) and tied Hamilton for the team lead with a plus-30 rating. He could assume a larger role again if Hamilton, who was banged up this week at camp, misses any time. However, it should be noted that Slavin was used less on the power play and had fewer power-play points than Jake Gardiner. Vatanen could also factor into Carolina’s plans regarding man-advantage situations.