Two days after completing their latest come from behind win in spectacular fashion thanks to overtime hero Artemi Panarin, whose power play goal allowed the Rangers to rally from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Penguins, they now are preparing for the Hurricanes.
The best-of-seven second round series starts tomorrow night in Carolina. Round Two actually begins tonight. The Battle Of Florida gets going when the Panthers host the Lightning at 7 PM. That’ll be followed by the Avalanche hosting the Blues at 9:30 PM.
I’ll have picks for the second round later. Meaning for the other three series including the much anticipated Battle Of Alberta between bitter rivals Calgary and Edmonton, who start up following the first game between the Rangers and Hurricanes.
It’s a brand new season. So, whatever happened before doesn’t matter. If you didn’t learn that lesson from how hard it was for the Blueshirts to advance past the Pens after dominating the regular season series, then you don’t get playoff hockey.
Here’s the thing. The Hurricanes took the season series by winning three of four meetings. However, they easily could’ve won all four. If not for the gem from backup Alex Georgiev, they would have.
That isn’t to suggest that the Rangers can’t compete in this series. The trade deadline additions of Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Justin Braun have improved the roster. Copp (4-3-7) was instrumental in setting up Mika Zibanejad’s clutch tying goal in Game Seven. Vatrano (2-3-5) and Braun (assist, 14:05 TOI) contributed to the Rangers’ first series triumph in five years.
So, what does the series between Tobacco Road and Broadway boil down to? Let’s take a closer look.
The Ex-Rangers: One subplot is that the Hurricanes feature six former Rangers. At one time, the Lightning were referred to as Rangers South. That moniker now belongs to Carolina.
The key players include offensive defenseman Tony DeAngelo, checking forward Jesper Fast, second pair defenseman Brady Skjei, third pair defenseman Brendan Smith, depth center Derek Stepan and winning first round netminder Antti Raanta.
In their seven-game first round victory over the Bruins, DeAngelo had eight points (1-7-8) along with partner Jaccob Slavin (2-6-8) to tie for the team lead in scoring. A superb skater who can transition quickly and run the power play, he must not be given time and space.
An excellent passer of the puck, he can find open teammates for offense. While good offensively, DeAngelo can be attacked defensively. The key will be finishing checks and getting underneath his skin. As we know, he’s an intense competitor. It will be the most interesting storyline of the series.
Of the two ex-Ranger forwards, Fast has a key role on the checking line. He plays with shutdown center Jordan Staal and the very effective Nino Niederreiter. A good two-way forward, who is a strong penalty killer, Fast could see quite a bit of former teammates Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
Stepan won’t play every game. The former 2015 playoff hero is used by Rod Brind’Amour as a fourth line depth player. It speaks to how deep the Canes are. If he plays, Stepan makes up for his lack of speed with smarts. He can be good behind the net.
Skjei pairs with Brett Pesce. Once a former first round pick, he was traded to Carolina for a first round pick that became Braden Schneider. Talk about a subplot.
Still a strong skater, Skjei can move the puck effectively while teaming with Pesce to match-up against quality competition. They’ll see either the Zibanejad line or Panarin line. He only had an assist in Round One. But is capable of contributing.
If there’s one area that can be exploited, it’s in his end. At times, Skjei can be forechecked and cough up the puck. He also can take penalties. He only took one against Boston.
Smith has become what he was in the Big Apple. A solid and steady third pair defenseman who likes to take the body, he works with Ian Cole. Cole is the stronger of the two having won Cups in Pittsburgh.
If there are scrums, figure Smith to be involved. He knows how to suck players into taking penalties. The Rangers must stay disciplined. That’ll be a key factor.
In the first round, Raanta was the number one goalie. The likable former backup to Henrik Lundqvist, he had a good showing. Filling in for starter Frederik Andersen, he won three games including the clincher to help the Canes advance.
Rookie Pyotr Kochetkov actually had to come in and start a game due to an injury. But once he returned to the net, Raanta did a good job. He posted a 2.37 GAA and .927 save percentage.
Andersen is expected back this round. The question is will he be ready for Game One. He is an upgrade over Raanta. But it depends how sharp he is. He missed significant time down the stretch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brind’Amour sticks with Raanta. The Hurricanes play the same style in front of their goalies.
It’s time to take a closer look at the match-ups. Here’s how it breaks down.
FORWARDS: The Hurricanes are well balanced. Led by Sebastian Aho (2-3-5), who had a quiet first round by his standards, he centers the top line. He and Andrei Svechnikov (3-1-4) are very good players who forecheck well with the latter supplying the physicality.
Rookie Seth Jarvis (3-2-5) has game-breaking speed that fits in well. He has a good shot and battles hard. Keep an eye on him. Aho has given the Rangers fits. Obviously, they must limit the mistakes and steer clear of taking penalties against the edgy Svechnikov.
The best Canes forward in Round One was Vincent Trocheck (3-4-7). His seven points tied with playmaker Teuvo Teravainen (2-5-7) for the most among forwards. They had a big Game Seven.
But it was deadline pickup Max Domi scoring his first two career postseason goals and adding a helper. They can’t be underestimated. Especially with Teravainen dangerous in in transition.
Staal anchors the checking line between Niederreiter and Fast. A terrific center on face-offs, who doubles as a good penalty killer, he is a very effective player due to his tenacity. Niederreiter is the best finisher on the line getting three goals against the Bruins. They’ll be matched up a lot against Zibanejad.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi anchors the fourth line. He’s a solid checking forward. Marty Necas is capable of contributing offense. He had three assists. It’ll be either Stepan or Brind’Amour favorite Jordan Martinook if he can return. Interestingly, Steven Lorentz played over Stepan in Game Seven.
The Rangers are more top heavy. Featuring Zibanejad (3-8-11), who took over by scoring three goals and four assists over the last two games, he is the big center they rely on.
An explosive player who is trusted by Gerard Gallant in every situation including the penalty kill, it’s Zibanejad’s time. As he and Chris Kreider (5-2-7) go, so do the Rangers. Vatrano brings good speed and a shoot first mentality. If he is ineffective like the seventh game, Gallant could bump up Alexis Lafreniere (2-2-4), who was very noticeable in his first taste of the postseason.
Despite struggling with whatever is ailing him, Panarin (3-4-7) overcame that to notch the biggest goal of his career that sent the Blueshirts to the second round. The Bread Man admitted that maybe he should’ve shot more due to how he was defended. A brilliant passer, he’s very unselfish. He must limit the turnovers that can fuel the Canes in the neutral zone.
Line mates Copp and Ryan Strome (1-5-6) had good offensive series. In a twist, Strome took the most shots (27) during Round One. He had some good looks on the power play due to Kreider and Zibanejad being focused on.
Copp brings that unique combination of skating, skill and grit. He’ll take more draws than Strome and is dangerous on the penalty kill. He really has made a huge difference. Keep an eye on him.
The third line of Filip Chytil (1-1-2), Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko (1-1-2) had some good moments in Round One. They were really effective on the cycle. Using a straightforward approach is why. Lafreniere makes things happen on the walls. Chytil used his size better than at any point during the season.
Kakko is the wildcard. He can either be noticeable when he’s using his size on the forecheck to create offense, or be invisible due to the lack of physicality. They need a bit more from him in this series. Especially if Barclay Goodrow remains out.
The checking line was alright against the Pens. By now, we know what Ryan Reaves will bring. A bundle of energy before and during games, he will deliver big hits and bang in the corners.
Kevin Rooney (2 assists) continues to be an effective defensive center who is solid on the kill. The return of Tyler Motte really gave the Rangers a boost due to his speed and tenacity. He is also a very good shorthanded player, combining with Copp to create opportunities. Both are good overall players Gallant can trust.
Analysis: If you prefer overall depth to top heavy scoring, then it’s the Canes. If you’re the opposite and like the explosive nature of the top six, then it’s the Blueshirts. Carolina is a little bit stronger.
DEFENSEMEN: Since I’ve already outlined what the three Hurricanes’ defense pairings will be, I’ll just rehash it quickly.
Slavin is the best defenseman they have. One of the game’s top defensive D, he is a strong skater who uses a combination of skating and positioning to match-up versus opponents’ top scorers. He really anchors the blue line. In the first round, he posted a plus-10 rating with eight points. That’s no coincidence.
DeAngelo we are quite familiar with. He can use his skating and vision to find openings. That includes the stretch pass. He also isn’t shy about shooting. A potent weapon on offense, the Ranger forwards must pay attention to him.
Of the two on the second pair, Pesce is the better defensive player over Skjei. He is more steady and will likely see a lot of Panarin. I would try to attack Skjei’s side more with soft dumps in the corner on the forecheck.
Cole is obviously more polished than Smith, who doesn’t have the best footspeed. So, that can be exploited. He makes up for it with smarts and toughness. Smith will look to get shots through if he’s open. Don’t forget he doubled on the fourth line last year.
What makes the Hurricanes so good defensively is their aggressive system. They will pinch up in the neutral zone to force turnovers. The Rangers are going to have to be much better at puck management in this round. If not, it’ll be a short stay.
Adam Fox is the offensive dynamo for the Rangers. His 10 points (3-7-10) were second behind Zibanejad in the first round. A terrific skating defenseman who’s superb at setting up open teammates, he is a great power play quarterback. He’ll create plenty of offense, but again must shoot the puck when he has the chance.
Paired alongside Ryan Lindgren (1-1-2) whose return was a huge reason they came back, Fox needs to do a better job defensively. He had some problems clearing pucks and got caught a few times.
Lindgren really covers up for him. He’s a lot like Dan Girardi. Heart and guts. Whatever he can do to help win whether it’s finishing checks, blocking shots or making key defensive plays, The Warrior will do it. They can’t afford to lose him.
The second pair consists of K’Andre Miller (1-3-4) and Jacob Trouba. Outside of a big Game Five where he had a goal and two assists while accidentally injuring Sidney Crosby on a fluke play, Trouba struggled mightily. He got caught out of position on goals and took unnecsessary penalties. That cannot happen this round.
It was actually Miller, who was the most effective defenseman in the seven games. A great skater who uses his long reach to break up plays, the second-year D has matured into a solid two-way player. While he made mistakes against Crosby, that was expected. However, his big goal and rush to draw a penalty led to Panarin’s winner.
Figure Miller and Trouba to see a lot of Aho, Svechnikov and Jarvis. That’ll be a key match-up. How they perform could help determine how the Rangers do against the heavily favored Hurricanes.
Gallant will likely go with Braun and Schneider for the third pair. Unlike Game Seven when neither received nine minutes, they’ll play double digits. Schneider had three assists. He is a good skater who can make good plays with the puck and smart pinches.
Braun is a no frills veteran who brings experience to the back end. Once Patrik Nemeth struggled against Pittsburgh, Gallant didn’t hesitate to insert the former Shark, who’s familiar with the playoff grind. His job is to keep it simple and be a steady influence on Schneider, who was up and down.
Analysis: The Canes are better overall due to how they play. In terms of the personnel, it’s pretty even. It will depend on how the Rangers’ defense handles things. They have enough talent to do a better job than what was on display in Round One.
GOALIES: Igor Shesterkin (252 saves on 277 shots) was a big story against the Pens. His 79 saves in Game One were the second most in playoff history. He struggled in Pittsburgh getting the hook twice. But that was a product of how the team played in front of him.
However, when push came to shove, Shesterkin came up large in Games Five, Six and Seven with the 42 saves in the deciding game being the difference. That’s the goalie the Rangers need to win this series.
If it’s Raanta, I’ve already documented his success story. He did a good job making the key stops when his team needed it most. At the moment, it’s unclear if Andersen will be available for the start of the series.
Analysis: Even if Andersen is back, will he be the same goalie who got snubbed when they revealed the three finalists for the Vezina? The Rangers know what they have in Shesterkin. Obviously, they don’t want a scenario where the Canes are controlling possession and turning his net into a shooting gallery. He can make the big saves. His puck handling is also a strength.
COACHES: It’s a fascinating match-up that pits Gallant against Brind’Amour. Both are good coaches who have done excellent jobs. While Brind’Amour is a bit more about matching up and intense, Gallant is more laid back and doesn’t panic.
They’re very different personalities. However, when he sees something he doesn’t like, Gallant will call his team out. He called them soft after an awful 7-2 loss in Game Four. He also made necessary in game adjustments to finally free up Zibanejad and Kreider in the final two games.
The line tweaking during the third period of Game Seven was critical. Without it, Gallant’s team is on the golf course. Brind’Amour is very detail oriented. He demands consistency from his team. They still have yet to take the next step. Gallant guided the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season.
Analysis: It depends on what you prefer. The pressure is on Brind’Amour due to having a more experienced roster. His system is excellent. Gallant must counter it by having his team prepared well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Rangers have a good power play. Despite some hiccups that nearly cost them, they went 6-for-19 (31.6 percent). Good for third in Round One. Zibanejad, Kreider and Panarin getting the key goals.
The Hurricanes went 5-for-36 (13.9 percent). Despite having almost twice the chances, they converted one fewer PPG. Both teams allowed a shorthanded goal.
On the penalty kill, both teams were inconsistent in the first round. The Rangers killed 17 of 23 (73.9) to rank 11th out of 16. Down from 82.3 (7th) in the regular season. However, they scored two shorthanded goals (Kreider and Copp). Despite all the whining from our fans, they only faced four more power plays.
The Hurricanes had a very good penalty kill in the regular season that ranked first. However, they weren’t as good versus the Bruins. Carolina went 23 for 29 (79.3) to place eighth best. Unlike the Rangers, they didn’t score shorthanded. But players like Aho, Teravainen and Staal are dangerous.
Analysis: If they can handle the Canes’ pressure, then the Rangers should have a clear advantage on the power play. It’s about drawing enough penalties to make it count. Without Goodrow, their penalty kill isn’t as strong. He wins draws.
Key Statistic: During the first round, the Rangers had a playoff high 148 giveaways. By comparison, the Hurricanes had 88. Both teams are top two in takeaways with the Canes having 83 and the Blueshirts having 71.
FACE-OFFS: This is the biggest area that could be a factor. The Rangers aren’t good on face-offs. They’ve struggled all year. It was no different in Round One. They went 43.1 percent to rank 16th. They MUST do a better job. Particularly in the defensive zone.
A strong puck possession team, the Hurricanes ranked sixth at 51.8 in the first round despite facing the Bruins. They have better personnel led by Staal. Needless to say, it’s a key part of the series to follow.
Intangibles: The Canes are the more battle tested team. They’ve been here before. So, they should be hungry to advance. It’s a group that made one Conference Final, but have yet to play for the Cup. There’s a lot on the line. The pressure is on them.
The Rangers gained a lot of valuable experience by rallying from behind to defeat the more experienced Penguins. They don’t face the same pressure. But they’re a very resilient group that never gives up.
Series Analysis: It’s a contrast in styles. The Rangers like to use their speed and skill to make things happen. The Hurricanes play very aggressively by activating their defense. They’re the better five-on-five team.
The x-factor could be Shesterkin. He can make this a closer series than what the so-called experts think. If he plays well, then the Rangers have a puncher’s chance.
Prediction: Hurricanes in 6
Since this took a while to complete, I’ll just make my picks for the other three series.
Panthers over Lightning in 6
Avalanche over Blues in 6
Flames over Oilers in 7