It took a Herculean effort from the whole team and the stellar goaltending of Igor Shesterkin to advance past the Penguins in the first round and now the New York Rangers are preparing for an even harder test. The opponent that New York Rangers bench-boss Gerard Gallant‘s team will face is the Carolina Hurricanes who were three wins better than the Blueshirts during the regular season under young head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
The Hurricanes do not receive the attention that the Rangers do because they lack a goalie nominated for the Hart Trophy as the league"s MVP as well as last season"s Norris Trophy winner but this might be a source of motivation. During the offseason, Carolina lost its best defenseman, Dougie Hamilton but were able to win the Metropolitan division because they have a complete hockey team. However, in the last Canes-Rangers meeting of 2021-22, a turnover by Carolina forward Seth Jarvis gave a breakaway to Chris Kreider and his 52nd goal of the year.
This season, the ‘Canes" did not play the Rangers until Jan. 21 but behind a goal and an assist from their first-line center Sebastian Aho Carolina handed the Rangers a stinging 6-3 loss. After adding two players at the trade deadline who now are top-six forwards, the Rangers shut out the Canes 2-0 on Mar. 20 behind goaltender, Alexander Georgiev but the ‘Canes still went on to defeat the Rangers the last two times they met. The Hurricanes won the season series against New York this year but does the fact that the Rangers came from behind to win their first-round series on Artemi Panarin‘s overtime winner mean they are ready to ride that high in the second round?
Carolina"s Goalies vs. Shesterkin
Comparing the sheer talent level of the goalies who will be the ‘last line of defence" for either team in this series is pointless since Igor Shesterkin led the NHL in both save percentages (SV%) and goals-against-average by a big gap. He also led the league in goals saved above average (45) which was 15 more than Ilya Sorokin in second place, which saw Shesterkin land a nomination for the Vezina. There is really no comparison between Carolina"s duo, Frederik Andersen and Raanta, or is there?
There of course is, no matter how good Shesterkin was during the regular season for two reasons; the Rangers netminder was hot at times and cold at times in the first round and both Antti Raanta and Andersen are more experienced than Shesty. The Finnish goalie, Raanta started his career with the Blueshirts and came into five playoff games in relief of Henrik Lundqvist, which did not make him a proven playoff goalie but he has learned from those lessons. It is clear in the six games he started in the first round, that he was a different man who went 3-2 with a dominant .927 SV%.
Andersen"s regular season was great even if it was not worthy of Vezina consideration. The 32-year-old was solid in all areas; 35 wins, .922 SV% even if it helped playing behind skaters who are smart defenders. The Hurricanes allowed the fewest goals as a team this season, which was just four less than the Rangers did, but they did it without having a ‘Superstar" in net and Freddy was not on the ice for practice Tuesday which means he is not coming back for the first two games of this series at least. While the fact that Raanta played well in the first round against an average Bruins offence creates some controversy here, there is no debate because Igor made difficult saves when it mattered in round one and should in round two as well.
The Blueline Battle
Comparing these bluelines is not easy because there is a Norris-worthy defenseman on either one. Adam Fox was the NHL"s best d-man in 2021 while Jaccob Slavin produced much less offence than Fox this season but still was a plus-35. Couple that with the Canes defenseman"s 6"3", 215-pound body and he is going to give Rangers net-front presence, Kreider a tough matchup but let"s compare the first pairing.
In the first round, the first pairing of Slavin and ex-Ranger Tony DeAngelo each produced eight points. ‘Tony D" will be eager to pay back the Rangers for essentially kicking him off the team last season (his fault) and the fact he had one goal and seven assists in round one is somewhat worrisome but not much. During the season, Carolina"s power-play rating was average (13th) but DeAngelo was one of their biggest threats, putting in 20 points on the man advantage. The Rangers penalty-killers need to keep DeAngelo under wraps in this series but as far as comparing each team"s first pair, they are both strong and well-rounded.
The Canes" second pair will be Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce. They are solid defensive defensemen but Skjei proved during his Ranger days that his offensive skills are nothing to sneeze at, as he contributed 39 points and a plus-22 rating. This is great but the Rangers" second defence pair includes Adam Fox, so edge negated. One thing to watch here is that the Fox-Lindgren pairing is smaller than Pesce-Skjei which means Carolina"s second line centred by Vincent Trocheck may be able to overwhelm them more than Ryan Strome‘s line can to the Skjei pairing.
The word on the street is that Carolina"s third pair is weak but is it true? Ian Cole is a two-time cup winner and Brendan Smith is a grizzled vet as well, who was a minus-two in round one while Cole was a plus-three. Compared with the Rangers" third pairing of Braden Schneider (-3 in round one) but saw Patrik Nemeth replaced by Justin Braun due to poor play, the Canes have the edge. If the Rangers keep Braun-Schneider together, it"s being reported that Carolina head coach Rod Brind"Amour could put his third line up against the Rangers first in favour of defence while the Cane"s first line would become their third line. While this would be strange, if it did happen surely Gerard Gallant would change his lines accordingly. Overall, I give the Hurricanes" blueline a slight edge because their first line has been so good both defensively and offensively and their third pair is better than New York"s.
Finally… the Forwards
The Rangers top two forward lines had varying degrees of success during the season. Of course, Chris Kreider made headlines by scoring over 50 goals for the first time in his career while Artemi Panarin led the team with 96 points while the Hurricanes" offence received less fanfare. Sebastian Aho led the Hurricanes with 81 points this season playing a finesse style on a line with power forward, Andre Svechnikov who is not as heavy as Kreider but can throw his weight around.
The Rangers" first line has experience on their side in this battle because everyone on the line has been in the league for at least five years. For Svechnikov this is his fourth season while the Cane"s first-line right-wing is a rookie and goes by the name Seth Jarvis. During their first-round series, the Rangers" top line had its way with Pittsburgh in games six and seven, combining for six goals when it mattered most. On the other hand, Aho had two goals in game two and was shut down for the last five games of the series (contributing just two assists). This gives the edge to the Rangers.
The second lines are pretty evenly matched. The Rangers" best second unit man, Panarin was shut down in the middle of the series (games 3-5) before contributing the game-winner in the seventh game to finish with 7 points. For Carolina, their second-line center Vincent Trocheck was consistent throughout the series, donating three goals and four assists, while his left-wing Teuvo Teravainen scored in their game seven victory. If Andrew Copp regains the scoring form he had to start round one, that could tip the scales in New york"s favour but overall, I see this line being a tie.
Now, it gets interesting because flying under the radar has been 15-year NHL veteran, Jordan Staal. The two-way center, who has a Stanley Cup on his resume, has centred the third line all year. However, as long as Carolina"s third line includes two physical wingers like the 6"2", 215-pound Nino Niederreiter and smaller but gritty former Rangers Jesper Fast Carolina"s third line is a nightmare for the Rangers ‘kid line." Filip Chytil centred a line that includes Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere well so far but they have not stood up to a smashmouth line like this yet and I expect Gallant to change things around. The New York Post which closely covers the Rangers reported that “there is talk that…Goodrow fractured his foot in game one against the Penguins." This makes it less likely that Goodrow can return to this series but his coach said “we"re not counting him out."
Overall, this conference semi-final will be very close, just like the score was (4-3) when the Canes defeated the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in their last meeting of the regular season. The important theme of this series will be how much of a difference star power will make for the Rangers. Clearly, if their MVP goaltender, Igor Shesterkin dominates and if the Rangers" top two lines which include 50-goal scorer Chris Kreider can take the lead against Carolina, early in game one it will set a good tone for New York. But, the Rangers cannot start games as poorly as they did in round one and not expect Carolina"s offence to put them down a couple of goals. The Rangers may have more star forwards than Carolina does but without Goodrow, they may lack the physicality that Carolina"s third and fourth lines bring.
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