After a couple days to rest and recharge (I am talking about the screaming Canes fans not the players :-)), the Hurricanes start anew in round 2 at PNC Arena on Wednesday night against the New York Rangers.
Below is my preview for the series.
How they got here
New York Rangers
Like the Canes, the Rangers needed all of 7 games and even a little bit extra in overtime to emerge victorious over the Pittsburgh Penguins and gain entry to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
The New York Rangers also required a couple lucky bounces if you will. When #2 goalie Casey DeSmith exited in overtime in game 1, the Penguins were pushed to play the vast majority of the series with their #3 goalie. Even still, the Penguins ran out to a 2-0 lead at the midway point of a potentially series clinching game 5. Then the Pens captain and best player Sidney Crosby was felled by a questionable high hit, changing the path for the entire series. Minus the Pens top 2 goals and then minus Crosby, the Rangers finally found their footing and were at least able to play even. Shortly after Crosby’s departure, the Rangers scored three straight and went on the steal game 5 and then also eke out a 5-3 win in game 6 in Pittsburgh. That set the stage for an overtime win to win the series in 7 games.
Any kind of win in the playoffs count. Bounces, breaks, injuries and whatever else comes in a meandering series is always part of it. That said, I think it is fair to say that more so than seizing a series win the Rangers opportunistically capitalized on a few breaks to change the course of a series headed in a different direction.
Just like the Rangers, the Hurricanes had their share of struggles in the first round too. The Canes were convincing at home. Jordan Staal and his line had a strong series at home significantly slowing Boston’s best and putting the ball on the tee for stronger scoring depth to carry the day. Down a couple goalies like the Penguins, the Canes got a win in relief from rookie Pyotr Kochetkov and also received strong play from #2 goalie Antti Raanta who started and finished the series. But on the road without the ability to dictate match ups, the Canes never really found an answer for slowing Bergeron’s line and were also slopping in terms of taking far too many penalties. The bipolar play between home and road forced the Canes to walk a tight rope that required a perfect record at home which they were able to achieve.
The biggest question for the Canes entering round 2 is if the team can find a higher gear on the road. The team proved that it is in fact possible to win a series by just holding serve at home, but that path is dangerous and has very little margin for error.
What decides the series?
The New York Rangers win the series if ______
1) Zibanejad’s line carries the day
The Rangers are a bit like the Bruins in that they have a top line that can be elite and the difference many nights. Mika Zibanejad had a whopping 11 points in the first round series win. After a massive 52-goal regular season that was up in the rarified air with Auston Matthews, Leon Draisaitl and Alexander Ovechkin, Chris Kreider had five more goals in the first-round series. And of Artemi Panarin brings the playmaking wizardry. After struggling to contain Marchand/Bergeron/Pastrnak on the road, Zibanejad’s line could present a similar challenge.
In the NHL playoffs, whichever team’s best players play best often decides the outcome. A huge series for the Zibanejad line would not guarantee a series win, but it would start the Rangers with a sizable advantage.
2) Regular season Igor Shesterkin returns
After staking a claim to the Vezina Trophy in the regular season, Shesterkin actually struggled in the first round of the playoffs. He allowed fewer than three goals only once and finished the series with a ‘meh at best’ with a 3.66 goals against average and .910 save percentage. He was pulled in tough starts in games 3 and 4, allowed 13 goals in only six periods of road hockey and save percentage of .835.
No doubt Shesterkin has the potential to be an X factor for the Rangers in this series if he can play at the level he did during the regular season. But his play in the first round raises the question of whether he can find that level under the bright lights of the playoffs.
3) Rangers win the special teams battle
Piggybacking on #1 and adding in Adam Fox, the Rangers have the personnel to be explosive on the power play. The Canes struggled and more so than not lost the special teams battle in the first round. If the Rangers can also gain that advantage, that advantage will represent a great starting point to winning the series.
The Carolina Hurricanes win the series if ______
1) Jordan Staal’s line can again shut down the other team’s best
The road is a different challenge as demonstrated in the Bruins series, but if Jordan Staal’s line can again quiet the other team’s top scoring line at home, Aho’s line gets a bit more favorable match ups, and the game shifts to secondary scoring which should be an advantage for the Canes. Past the Rangers top forward line, Ryan Strome had 54 points and the next highest forward was Goodrow with only 33. By contrast the Canes had seven forwards with 40 or more points and nine forwards above Goodrow’s 33 (who was fifth among Rangers forwards).
So if the Rangers top scoring line is held in check, the Canes should have an advantage in a series determined by depth scoring.
2) Canes win or tie the goaltending battle
Per above, Shesterkin enters the series with the potential to be a difference-maker but also with questions exiting the first round. I think Shesterkin must be at the top of his game for the Rangers to win the series, so if the Canes can break even here, I think they win the series. By virtue of missing a game and a half with injury after a great start and being partly the victim of the Canes sub-par play on the road, Raanta’s first-round series play is maybe underappreciated. If he can pick up where he left off, the Canes have a good chance to win or tie this battle.
3) Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov find a higher gear
Per my article with areas for improvement yesterday, I did not think Aho or Svechnikov were very good in the first round, yet the Canes prevailed. If the Canes top two scorers can find a higher gear, the Canes become a much deeper team offensively with the potential to attack and score in waves. Whether it is the second round or later, the Canes will not win the Cup if Aho and Svechnikov are not part of leading the way offensively. The Rangers are interesting in that they actually allowed fewer goals, but much of that was Shesterkin. The Rangers’ young, offense-leaning blue line led by Adam Fox can be had and the Rangers are not as tight system-wise as the Bruins. Perhaps that small opening is that helps get Aho and Svechnikov going.
How it ends
I think the Shesterkin thing is huge. If he plays like he did during the regular season, the Rangers are set up well to endure some stretches where they are outplayed by the Canes scoring depth that can come in waves. That scenario makes for a long series that could go either way. If instead Shesterkin struggles even just on the road, I think the Hurricanes win the series in six games or less.
The key to a long series could be the Staal line versus the Zibanejad line. If Staal and company can do what they did against Bergeron’s line at home, the Canes are positioned well to grind out another back and forth series win maybe again without winning on the road. But if you couple Staal’s line doing their thing with an Aho/Svechnikov scoring burst, I just think the Canes are too deep offensively.
If pressed to call the series, I think the Canes win in 5 without Shesterkin stealing a game or in 6 games if he does.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you see as the keys the Canes versus Rangers series?
2) What do you predict will be the key story lines when it ends?
3) What is your prediction for a winner and number of games?