So maybe this series against the Candy Canes isn’t officially recognized as a playoff round, but it is the postseason — the postseason! — and the rebuilding Rangers are playing hockey. Raise your hand if you envisioned that as a possibility when The Letter went out on Feb. 8, 2018. You in the back row, put it down, you’re fibbing,
The Blueshirts are back and are still rebuilding, not yet quite rebuilt. But the course of franchise history was altered 29 months ago when the commitment was made to strip it down to the bare bones and organically construct a Stanley Cup contender built to last.
Of course, there was some cash set aside for people like Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba to help accelerate the process and — Shazam! — here they are, three-out-five to qualify for the playoffs after just two years out.
But this was no magic trick. The Rangers have approached with a plan, and so has David Quinn. One step at a time, two steps (OK, four) if you count Panarin. The next step presents itself against a Carolina team that had missed the playoffs nine straight seasons before advancing to the conference finals a year ago.
You may not realize this, but the Rangers went 4-0 against Carolina this year. No, I know. Everyone realizes this.
I’m old enough to remember the second round of the 1996 playoffs when the Rangers with Mike Richter were expected to have a significant edge in nets against the Penguins’ Ken Wregget. Except that Wregget outplayed Richter, and the Blueshirts were buried in five games.
That disclaimer aside, the Blueshirts seem to have a substantial advantage here. Igor Shesterkin not only stops pucks, he swallows them to prevent rebounds and moves them out of harm’s way to relieve defensive-zone pressure. That’s a critical asset in playing against a forecheck-mad, puck-possession club like the Hurricanes. The lightning quick netminder may be a novice to NHL postseason play, but at the age of 24, he has 16 KHL playoff games and a Gagarin Cup on his résumé.
If Shesterkin runs into difficulty, Henrik Lundqvist — who has exhibited career-long mastery over Carolina that extended to 3-0/.947/2.33 this season and who had an excellent summer camp — will be ready.
Petr Mrazek, who went 5-5 in 11 starts in the playoffs a year ago, is an extremely aggressive netminder capable of spectacular saves but whose stability is an issue. Mrazek, who missed nearly three weeks just before the pause recovering from a concussion, recorded just a .912 save percentage at even-strength that ranked 18th among the 21 goaltenders with at least 1,800 minutes (according to Naturalstattrick.com). James Reimer is Mrazek’s backup.
The Rangers have the two best forwards entering the series in Panarin, a Hart Trophy finalist, and Mika Zibanejad. Splitting up the game-breakers, as the Rangers did essentially all season, creates Quinn’s greatest pick-your-poison matchup advantage. But the strength of the top two lines is offset to a degree by the lack of support/production from the bottom six. If the summer camp work of Kaapo Kakko and Fil Chytil translates to the tournament, that would alter the dynamic.
Opposites here, because though the ’Canes can’t quite match Panarin and Zibanejad, they’re loaded through their top nine and use their fourth line to advantage, as well. No candy here, they come hard and generate an enormous number of shots, looking always to funnel the play to the front. The Andrei Svechnikov-Sebastian Aho-Teuvo Teravainen top unit is shifty and talented, the second line with Jordan Staal between Ryan Dzingel and Justin Williams (Mr. Game 7 in a best-of-five?) is difficult to handle, and the third line bolstered by Vincent Trocheck’s deadline acquisition is very dangerous.
The Blueshirts’ mettle and structure will be tested from the get-go. The puck-movers will have to be efficient with the first pass and intelligent with decision-making under pressure. The Rangers were actually a better team defending in their own end than in coping with the rush. The Ryan Lindgren-Adam Fox pair emerged as the team’s matchup tandem, but expect the Brendan Smith-Jacob Trouba pair to do some heavy lifting here. This too: Fox and Tony DeAngelo can create loads of offense from the back.
The ’Canes greatest strength, depth on defense, has been diluted by injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce, so that means that deadline acquisitions Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen move up into more prominent roles. Carolina’s backline is generally more dependable than flashy.
The Rangers’ power play can be explosive, the unit clicking at nearly 30 percent (29-for-99) in the 34 games since Christmas. Chris Kreider is the net-front presence, with Zibanejad and Panarin both zinging one-timers with Ryan Strome facilitating and DeAngelo running it creatively from the top. The second unit generally gets leftover scraps of time.
The Blueshirts’ penalty kill has not been especially effective for years, so any wrinkles suggested by assistant coach Gord Murphy, elevated from Hartford in conjunction with Lindy Ruff’s hiring by the Devils, would be welcome. The team finished 23rd at 77.4 percent.
Carolina came in at 22.3 percent with the man-advantage, just behind New York’s 22.9, but will have to cope with Hamilton’s absence. Actually, the ’Canes did that, going the exact same 22.3 percentage without Hamilton in the season’s final 21 games he missed with a broken leg. The very aggressive penalty-kill unit finished fourth in the NHL at 84 percent.
Quinn’s first NHL playoff-type experience, Rod Brind’Amour’s second. Each has the pulse of his team.
Quality vs. quantity here. There is a load on Panarin, Zibanejad and, of course, Shesterkin (Lundqvist?). The ’Canes are stronger 1-through-uh-31, but the cream at the top and the superiority in nets elevates the Blueshirts.
Rangers in five.