In less than 24 hours, the puck will drop on the first of eight best of five Preliminary Series. The Rangers and Hurricanes will be featured in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round. Only one team will advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The 6/11 match-up should be closely fought between two teams that were separated by two points in the standings before the pause. It is a contrast of styles and a difference in experience.
Undoubtedly, the more proven Hurricanes have the edge in the latter due to their run to last year’s Eastern Conference Final before the Bruins rolled them in four. Stylistically, they play an aggressive puck possession game based on skating from the defense out. Assuming Dougie Hamilton can’t go, that’ll hurt. They still boast strong skating Jaccob Slavin, Sami Vatanen and former Ranger Brady Skjei to push the pace.
The Rangers also like to use quick transition up the ice due to gifted defensemen Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox. Both will be counted on to lead an attack that features superstar Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome.
If there’s a similarity, both teams prefer to have the puck and apply forecheck pressure due to their speed and skill. The Canes feature Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. A dynamic trio that can’t be overlooked. Maybe none have the star power of a Panarin or finishing ability of a Zibanejad. But they are three superb skaters with Aho and Svechnikov explosive if they’re given time and space. Teravainen is a great passer.
The Rangers boast the best power forward in the series with a healthy Kreider, who combines a unique skill set of size, speed, and grit. Very adept at screening goalies, he can be a decoy due to his net front presence or tip shots in. Rebounds are also an area he excels. If he’s in transition at full speed, he is lethal on breakaways where he can either fire a wrist shot or go to his patented forehand, backhand deke to beat goalies. Don’t forget he’s playoff proven since his introduction during the 2012 Playoffs.
In terms of proven performers, nobody has the resume of Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams. He returned to the Canes after some time off. The 38-year old veteran right wing isn’t quite a future Hall of Famer. However, he’s the epitome of clutch. A three-time Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe winner at the expense of the Blueshirts in 2014, Williams usually saves his best for these big spots. Though not quite as productive as what he once was, he is a winning player, whose 101 points (40-61-101) in the postseason are proof that he is someone you don’t want to get going.
In terms of Stanley Cup experience, give the edge to the Hurricanes. They total seven including Williams with three, Joel Edmundson (1), Jordan Staal (1), Teravainen (1) and Trevor van Riemsdyk (1). Four Rangers are left from the ’13-14 roster that lost to the Kings. They are Jesper Fast, Kreider, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal. It’s also interesting to note that Kreider has the most points in the postseason from a Blueshirts perspective. Panarin is just under a point-per-game in appearances with Chicago and Columbus. Zibanejad doesn’t have too much experience, but was productive in 2017. He scored the clutch overtime winner at Montreal.
Goaltending should favor the Rangers thanks to rookie Igor Shesterkin and Lundqvist, who is a proven performer if the kid struggles. Carolina will go with the tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. Reimer performed better during the season than Mrazek. Who knows what coach Rod Brind’Amour will decide.
In terms of how they match-up up front and on the back end, here’s how it looks.
The Rangers top six of Kreider, Zibanejad, Buchnevich, Panarin, Strome and Fast should give them an edge due to boasting two scoring lines. However, the Hurricanes boast some solid checkers like two-way pivot Jordan Staal, who should see a lot of either the KZB line or Panarin unit. That depends how Brind’Amour plays it. He will have last change in Games 1-2 and 5 if necessary. He could opt to go head to head with the trio of Teravainen, Aho and Svechnikov against the Zibanejad scoring unit.
The Canes may boast more depth due to Staal, Williams, Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Dzingel, Warren Foegle and Brock McGinn. While much of the focus will be on Kaapo Kakko for the Rangers along with Filip Chytil, keep an eye on Martin Necas (probable for tomorrow) and Morgan Geekie. Both could be factors if Carolina is successful. The Rangers will look towards kids Chytil and Kakko for scoring help. Wildcards are Brett Howden, former Cane Greg McKegg and Brendan Lemieux if he gets in following the two game suspension. Phil Di Giuseppe is a good skater, who’s been a nice fit on the third line.
Even without Hamilton (out for Game 1) and Brett Pesce, the Canes are still formidable thanks to Slavin, who can control the tempo. A good all around player, he will draw the assignment with Vatanen against either KZB or the Bread Man line. It’ll be interesting to see how Brady Skjei performs versus his former team. Will he fare well or commit some of the mind-boggling mistakes that turned fans off? He has postseason experience, doing well in his one appearance three years ago.
The Canes also have Jake Gardiner, who was a big disappointment. He can play third pair and power play. Edmundson is probably the most overlooked. A solid, steady D who won with the Blues, he came over for offensive defenseman Justin Faulk. Boasting depth with the likes of van Riemsdyk, Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, Carolina has plenty of options. If Hamilton returns for a potential Game Four or deciding Five, that could tilt it in their favor.
David Quinn will lean on the rookie tandem of Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox. Lindgren plays the strong, physical game that can agitate opponents, allowing the smoother skating Fox to transition quickly. Very slick and poised for a first-year player, he can make plays look easy. A terrific passer, Foxy is effective at five-on-five and plays on the second power play unit with Jacob Trouba. Trouba was a bit inconsistent after a good start. Maybe it was the tough transition from Winnipeg to New York. His former partner Skjei didn’t help. Now, he is teamed with Brendan Smith. Trouba must carry that pair for it to work. He can supply offense with a heavy shot.
Unless he can’t go tomorrow, DeAngelo will be with familiar partner Marc Staal. Staal is good to go after sitting out the third period in a tuneup against the Islanders on Wednesday night. The savvy veteran provides the nuts and bolts. He will draw tough assignments, check and block shots. He’s part of the penalty kill with Lindgren, Trouba and Smith. DeAngelo is the dynamic offensive defenseman who’s been splendid. A great skater who has excellent vision, DeAngelo can find open teammates while finding room for his accurate shot if left open. If he can’t go on Saturday, that’s a big hit. Libor Hajek would replace him and that could jumble the Quinn’s pairings.
If you’re looking for a gray area in what shapes up to be a competitive series, this could be it. There’s the Hurricanes’ experience versus the Rangers’ youth. You have the star power of Panarin, who’s up for the Hart, against the emerging star of Aho and Svechnikov. There’s the unique combination of Kreider and skill of Zibanejad vs the stick to it mentality of Jordan Staal and been there done that before in Williams. The playmaking of Teravainen vs the emergence of Strome, who’s benefited greatly from playing with Panarin. The grit and hustle of Fast vs the similar Foegle.
The youthful exuberance of Kakko and Chytil vs Necas and Geekie, who looked the part in a brief stint. The unique storyline of Skjei up against the team that found him expendable. The subplot of Fox vs Carolina, who he didn’t sign with. They traded him to the Rangers, who are extremely happy. What about McKegg, who was played a role last Spring for the Canes? Or Julien Gauthier, who they gave up on. It’s juicy.
In order for the Rangers to prevail, they must do a good job winning enough key face-offs against a better opponent on draws. That means Quinn will use a lot of Zibanejad and Strome when he can. He also should utilize Howden or McKegg when possible. They don’t match up in the circle. Puck possession will be huge. Shesterkin can’t be under siege. That might’ve worked in the regular season, but won’t now. That means winning board battles, clearing the zone and minimizing icings along with undisciplined penalties.
This has the feel of a long series. Contrasting styles usually make for good match-ups. There should be plenty of skating and transition. However, what if Brind’Amour decides to slow it down? A track meet would probably favor the Rangers due to their game breakers. A tight checking affair would actually benefit the more proven Canes.
What about the goalies? Will the Blueshirts make quick work of Mrazek and Reimer like the season series? I’ve said before that doesn’t matter. The winner will be determined by who’s able to defend better and execute their strategy at even strength. Special teams will play a part. It’ll go the distance.
Rangers in 5