Lun. May 27th, 2024

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The New York Rangers had the NHL’s best regular-season record. The Carolina Hurricanes finished directly in their rearview mirror, three points back — and objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

«The Rangers were the best team, and we were on their heels all year,» Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. «You gotta get through the best at some point, so might as well have at it now.»

They meet in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, after the Rangers swept the Washington Capitals and the Hurricanes eliminated the New York Islanders in five games. Game 1 of their series is Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+).

The last time these teams collided was in the second round of the 2022 playoffs, a series the Rangers won in seven games. Center Vincent Trocheck was on that Hurricanes team, scoring three goals in the series. He’s now a key forward on the Rangers.

«It was a battle. But it’s two completely different teams now. A lot of new guys since I’ve been there,» he said. «But still the same style of hockey [in Carolina].»

One constant is Brind’Amour behind the Hurricanes bench. He and Rangers coach Peter Laviolette have a unique history: In 2006, Laviolette coached the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup … and Brind’Amour was his captain.

The similarities between these titans of the East don’t end there. Here are five things that could swing this incredibly tight series in either direction.

Can the Rangers thrive at 5-on-5?

By now, the Rangers’ vulnerabilities at 5-on-5 play are canon. We wrote about them in December. We wrote about them again in April.

They did little to dispel those concerns against the Capitals, with a 38.8% expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 in their sweep. But score effects were a big part of that disparity, especially on offense: The Rangers were tied for just 13 minutes and 50 seconds in the series and trailed for just 17 seconds at 5-on-5.

New York is considered an underdog by many in this series, a notion that tracks to how middling it is when it is not on special teams, combined with how dominant the Hurricanes have been at 5-on-5. Carolina earned 59.5% of the shot attempts in the regular season, best in the league. They were second in expected goals percentage (56.9%), while the Rangers were 22nd overall (49%). That’s been a hallmark of Brind’Amour’s teams.

It should be noted that the Rangers have improved at 5-on-5 (51.8% expected goals percentage) since adding Jack Roslovic and Alex Wennberg to the lineup at the trade deadline.

Of course, the Hurricanes were still rolling at a 59.3% expected goals percentage after the deadline themselves.

«When it comes to how you run your offense, you have to look at how a team defends,» Laviolette said. «It does change a little bit for me based on what the D-zone coverage is doing.»

Under Laviolette, the Rangers have played a tough, simplified game that involves quick puck movement. That’s helped them find better results than last season, when they were overwhelmed by the speed of a team such as the New Jersey Devils, who eliminated them in the first round.

Carolina also moves the puck fast, but it moves its skates faster.

«It’s just fast hockey. They’ll swarm at times. They can get going, and you’ve just kind of got to keep your cool in your own zone and get the puck out and live to fight another day. They come in waves,» Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said.

Brind’Amour felt that the 5-on-5 battle was going to be a tight one defensively. «They give you no room, because they’re a good team,» he said.

One wild card for the Rangers: Center Filip Chytil, who’s been practicing with the team but hasn’t played since Nov. 2 due to a suspected concussion. He had four goals in seven games against Carolina in 2022, all of them at 5-on-5.


This series features two starting goaltenders who have hit their strides at the right time.

Even as the Rangers were stacking wins, Shesterkin was inconsistent earlier in the season, leading to backup Jonathan Quick getting 26 starts. But Shesterkin had a .918 save percentage and 5.9 goals saved above average in his 14 games since the NHL trade deadline.

Following a 4-1-0 start, doctors discovered a blood clotting issue affecting Andersen. He missed 49 games over a four-month span. Following his return to the lineup, Andersen posted a 9-1-0 record, 1.30 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and three shutouts. He led the NHL with 11.6 goals saved above average in that span, per Natural Stat Trick.

Andersen was named a finalist for the Masterton Trophy awarded «to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.»

Shesterkin had better numbers in the first round with a .931 save percentage and a 1.75 goals-against average. Andersen had a .912 save percentage with a 2.25 GAA. Shesterkin faced more high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes (7.47) than did Andersen (6.6), but both netminders saw their teams keep the heat off of them at even strength.

Andersen lost his only start against the Rangers this season, but stopped 24 of 26 shots. Shesterkin was 2-1 against the Hurricanes with a .915 save percentage and one shutout.

Of course, when discussing the Hurricanes, it’s never just one goalie in the conversation. Rookie Pyotr Kochetkov started 40 games for the Canes in the regular season, posting a .911 save percentage. He faced the Rangers twice in that 2022 series.

«There will be time when we’re going to rely on everyone on this team and he’s going to be a part of that,» Andersen said.


Will a revamped Carolina offense put it over?

Brind’Amour has coached the Hurricanes since the 2018-19 season. They’ve made the conference finals twice since then, including last season, when they were swept by the Florida Panthers in four straight one-goal games.

That encapsulated a frequent postseason issue for the Hurricanes: For all of their puck possession and shot attempts, they’ve often been unable to conjure up a goal at a critical time to swing a game or a series. It’s been one of the starker differences between the Rangers and the Hurricanes: Despite New York’s average play at 5-on-5, it finishes chances it creates more efficiently than Carolina.

The Hurricanes have traditionally not chased high-profile offensive rentals at the NHL trade deadline. That changed this season when they won the derby for Pittsburgh Penguins pending free agent winger Jake Guentzel. He’s an elite top-line talent who drives play and finishes chances. He’s also been one of the most effective playoff performers in the NHL over the past several seasons, with 62 points in 63 games, including four points in five games against the Islanders.

Carolina also added former Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov at the deadline. After seven points in 20 regular-season games, he had four points in five games in the first round.

Guentzel was plugged onto the Hurricanes’ top line with Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov.

Ask around the team and the fact that Svechnikov is in this series might be more important than any trade deadline pickup. He had five points in five games against the Islanders after missing the postseason in 2023 due to an ACL tear. He’s a difference-maker.


Can the Panarin line level up?

Artemi Panarin blamed himself for the Rangers’ first-round exit last season, tallying just two assists in seven games and skating to a minus-2 rating. He refocused in the offseason, symbolically shaving his head, and returned to have a career year: 120 points in 82 games, including 49 goals.

In his return to the playoffs, Panarin was solid: two goals and an assist in four games. They Rangers had such an advantage against the overmatched Capitals that they really didn’t need Panarin to carry them. That likely changes against the Hurricanes, given how tight this series will be played.

But that’s not just on Panarin. His line with Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere had as many scoring chances at 5-on-5 as they surrendered in four games against the Capitals (20). They were slightly underwater in expected goals percentage (49%). The Rangers need this line to be better than one that trades chances with opponents.


The special teams stalemate?

The Rangers feed off their power play, which ranked third in the regular season (26.4%). They used it to close out three of their four victories against the Capitals, going 6-for-16 in the opening round. Not to be outdone was their penalty kill, which ranked No. 3 in the regular season (84.5%) and didn’t allow a Capitals power-play goal in three of the four games. In fact, they had as many short-handed goals as the Capitals had power-play goals (2) in the sweep.

New York would have a special teams advantage over anyone in the playoffs.

Well, almost anyone.

The Hurricanes had the best penalty kill (86.4%) and second best power play (26.9%) in the regular season. In the first round against the Islanders, the Canes went 5-for-15 with the man advantage — although they did allow three power-play goals on 11 opportunities to the Islanders.

«As you get deeper in the playoffs, it gets more and more important,» Trouba said. «All the teams at this point have good power plays and good penalty kills.»

Back in their 2022 series, the Rangers’ power play was the difference, with seven goals vs. just two tallies for the Hurricanes. But that Carolina power play wasn’t nearly as good as this one, with Guentzel (11 power-play points in 22 games with the Hurricanes) now on the top unit.

This might be the most evenly matchup of the series — at least on paper — so to have it tip in either direction could tip the series as well.

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