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Stanley Cup Qualifiers Preview: Hurricanes vs. Rangers

Canes return to postseason, begin with best-of-five series

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / Hurricanes.com

TORONTO - The Carolina Hurricanes are supposed to be here.

Not necessarily "here," as in playing in a 24-team postseason tournament in a bubble in Toronto in August.

No, no one could have predicted that.

But they are supposed to be here, as in competing for the Stanley Cup.

This is what they're built for, and this competition is one to which they've been building since the first whistle of training camp.

2020 STANLEY CUP QUALIFIERS

"We've got a very strong team, and we're pretty confident," Brock McGinn said.

"We've got a group that is hungry for another run and hungry for a Cup," Jordan Staal said.

On March 12, the Hurricanes were trending upward. They had won three games in a row and were climbing in the standings in a tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They occupied the first wild card spot but had their eyes set on the top three in Metropolitan Division. With seven of their remaining 14 games against divisional opponents, including three against Pittsburgh alone, it seemed a realistic possibility.

Then, everything came to a screeching halt when the NHL had to pause its 2019-20 regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost five months later, the NHL has returned to the ice in two hub cities, and the Canes are back in the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 2001 and 2002.

"We're a hungry team," Sebastian Aho said.

"We're ready for it," Jaccob Slavin said. "We know what we're going up against, and we know what we have to do to win."

It's a little different this year, of course. There are 24 teams involved in this one-of-a-kind postseason tournament. There is a best-of-five qualifying round series. There are no fans. There is no home-ice advantage. It's the middle of summer.

But, it's still hockey, and there's a championship on the line. The 19-win quest to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup begins for the Canes in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

"It's going to be a hard, hard one to win," Jordan Martinook said. "Everybody is kind of at level playing ground. We're excited for the challenge."

By the Numbers

2019-20 Regular Season Stats
38-25-5 Record 37-28-5
81 Points 79
3.19 Goals per game 3.33
2.84 Goals against per game 3.14
22.3% Power Play 22.9%
84.0% Penalty Kill 77.4%
33.3 Shots for per game 31.1
29.3 Shots against per game 34.0
50.5% Faceoffs 46.6%
CAROLINA   NY RANGERS

Video: SAP by the Numbers: Rangers vs Hurricanes

Revisiting the Season Series

Even though the 2019-20 regular season was cut short, the Canes and Rangers played the entirety of their four-game series.

The Rangers outscored the Canes 17-9 en route to a series sweep, but a lot has changed since prior to the trade deadline in late February.

"I think the whole regular season is so gone far back, that even if we won four in a row or whatever, I just think it would be such a non-factor," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "Everybody is coming in different right now and starting fresh. That's the key."

"It's going to be a tough team, but I think the way we match-up against them, we match up well. Whatever happened in the regular season is behind us now. The playoffs are a completely different story. I like our chances, and I like the team we have," said Vincent Trocheck, a key trade deadline acquisition. "We're built for the playoffs."

Nov. 7: Rangers 4, Hurricanes 2 

The Canes liked pretty much everything about their game except the final result. In just the first 20 minutes alone, the Canes dominated possession, shot attempts (44-11) and shots on goal (22-6). The Rangers, though, led 1-0 at the first intermission.

In total, Carolina peppered Henrik Lundqvist with 47 shots, but the King, starting for the second consecutive night in a back-to-back for the 85th time in his career, made 45 saves in a sterling performance.

"We dominated that game. The bounces didn't go our way. A couple key saves for them," Warren Foegele said after the game. "The result isn't what we wanted, but we worked really hard tonight and had so many grade-A chances."

"I think we were the better team from start to finish, and their goalie was great. That happens," Brind'Amour said in his postgame remarks. "In 82 games, your goalie steals one here and there. That's what happened."

Video: CAR Recap: Hamilton, Aho score in loss to Rangers

Nov. 27: Rangers 3, Hurricanes 2

While the Canes were satisfied with their first period (score aside) against the Rangers 20 days prior, this one was one to forget.

Mika Zibanejad, Brendan Smith and Adam Fox buried the Canes in a 3-0 hole in the first period, and that was pretty much that, despite the Canes' best efforts to erase the rotten start.

"It's tough to climb out of a 3-0 hole," Ryan Dzingel said. "You can't do that in the NHL. You're going to be behind the eight ball, and you're not going to be able to get it done."

The Canes did at least fight back with a markedly better second period.

Dzingel netted a power-play goal to get the Canes on the board, and just 89 seconds later, Foegele, who finished the night with a game-high nine shots on goal, made it a one-goal game.

Martin Necas was inches away from tying the game, but Lundqvist, who made 41 saves on 43 shots, made his timeliest and best stop of the night, paddling away Necas' look at an otherwise wide-open net.

"It's a 60-minute game. You have to play for 60 minutes. We weren't ready at the start," Brind'Amour said. "We were a little sluggish. Bing, bing, bing, and now you have to dig yourself out of a hole. We weren't able to do that."

Video: CAR Recap: Dzingel, Foegele score in 3-2 loss

Dec. 27: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 3

In about 17 minutes of game time, the Rangers scored four straight goals, including two power-play markers from Zibanejad, to turn the Canes' 1-0 lead into a three-goal deficit.

"We worked hard, but we gave them too many easy goals," Aho said. "The game was right there. We played it well enough and had a lot of scoring chances. The system works, obviously. When we have a chance, we have to be a little bit sharper."

The Canes were able to put three pucks past Lundqvist, with Lucas Wallmark, Brett Pesce and Aho finding the scoresheet, but the Rangers' netminder still made 39 saves. In total, Lundqvist stopped 125 of 132 shots (.947 save percentage) he faced in the first three games of the season series.

"Lundqvist always plays pretty solid against us. I feel like we had really good chances tonight. I think, for the most part, we played a pretty good game," Slavin said. "But, there were little turnovers we had, little lapses we had that ended up costing us the game."

Video: CAR Recap: Hurricanes rally late, fall 5-3 to Rangers

Feb. 21: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 2

Though the Canes finally drew a different Rangers starting goaltender, they couldn't change the result, as New York skated away from Raleigh with a 5-2 win and a season series sweep.

Again, it was a string of goals that dropped the Canes in a multi-goal hole. McGinn, playing in his 300th career NHL game, tied the score at one in the second period. From there, Jesper Fast, Brady Skjei (just three days before he was dealt to Carolina) and Artemi Panarin put the Rangers up 4-1. Aho answered back with a power-play goal a little more than five minutes into the third period, but that's as close as the Canes came to evening the score.

Rookie netminder Igor Shesterkin made 27 saves.

"We've got to be playing better hockey and find ways to beat them with our own game," Staal said. "We had to be more desperate. It wasn't there. That's frustrating this time of year."

Video: CAR Recap: McGinn, Aho score in loss to Rangers

Why the Hurricanes Pose a Challenge for the Rangers

Depth

The Canes' depth, especially on the blue line, is one of the team's greatest strengths heading into the postseason.

Even with Dougie Hamilton's status a question mark - he has not practiced with the team since last Wednesday - the Canes have seven viable NHL options on defense.

RELATED: CANES DEEPER THAN EVER HEADING INTO POSTSEASON

"One of the deepest D corps in the league, and our offense is right there, too," Joel Edmundson said. "We've got a stacked team."

"We're as deep as we've ever been," Brind'Amour said on the first day of camp. "It's a great problem to have."

Now, the challenge is to figure out who plays and who sits for Game 1.

"We've got a lot of decisions to make now. We all along knew this time would come," Brind'Amour said following the exhibition against Washington. "We've got two days to put the best lineup out there possible."

The lineup could be a fluid situation throughout the series, too. That, after all, is the benefit of quality depth.

"The team that wins this, they're going to have to have depth. I can tell you that," Brind'Amour said. "If you want to win it, you've got to have it."

Experience

What a difference a year makes. 

In April 2019, the Canes were a scrappy, young bunch that surged their way up the standings and into the postseason for the first time in a decade. The playoffs - the emotion, the intensity, the highs and the lows - were a fresh experience for many.

The Canes had just 11 players on their roster who had previous postseason experience, combining for 363 games. Justin Williams accounted for 140 of those games alone.

A year later, the Canes' roster boasts 696 combined games of playoff experience and includes 16 players who competed in the team's run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2019.

"I think [experience] is extremely beneficial," Williams said. "We had some great experiences last year, some great breakthroughs, and guys learned about playoff hockey. That was really important."

"Going into this postseason, obviously it's different for everybody, especially with the play-in round, but I don't expect that round to be any less intense than the First Round or the Conference Final was last year," Slavin said.

A Fresh Pair of Eyes

It's not that one player - aside from a goaltender, perhaps - is going to shift a series one way or the other, but Skjei could be a valuable resource for the Canes. He's already going to play a key role on the team's blue line, and he also has a wealth of insight about the team with which he played 307 of his 314 career NHL games.

"I don't want to give away too much, but we've talked to Brady a little bit," Brind'Amour said during Phase 3. "We'll definitely use him as a resource when we start dialing up more talking about our opponent."

"These two teams have seen each other enough to where everyone kind of knows each guy's game," Skjei said. "I'll definitely give some inside scoops to give us the best chance to win."

When there is a championship on the line, there isn't much added motivated needed. But, Skjei?

"I can tell you I'm really excited and looking forward to it. I've got a ton of motivation," he said. "I really enjoyed my time in New York and loved every part of it, but now I've got a ton of motivation, a chip on my shoulder going into this playoff series. I'll do everything possible and everything I can to come out of this series victorious."

Why the Rangers Pose a Challenge for the Hurricanes

Goaltending

The Rangers' goaltending, specifically the play of Lundqvist, was one of, if not *the* biggest difference maker in the season series.

Lundqvist was 3-0-0 with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage against the Canes in 2019-20. In his last 11 appearances against the Canes, he's an even more impressive 10-1-0 with a 1.64 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage. Pulling back even further to Feb. 2011, Lundqvist is 24-4-0 with a 1.73 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage over the course of 28 appearances against the Canes.

And he might not even start in Game 1.

Shesterkin went 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage in 12 starts after being recalled from the AHL in early January.

High-End Power Play

If not the team's goaltending, it was the Rangers' power play that helped turn the tide in the season series. New York was 5-for-15 (33.3 percent) on the man advantage, while the Canes were 2-for-16 (12.5 percent).

The Rangers finished the season ranked seventh in the NHL on the power play (22.9 percent), but the Canes were tenths of a percentage point behind them in eighth (22.3 percent).

"Special teams are always the key. They've got a good power play with high-end players. That's going to be crucial, and it always is," Brind'Amour said. "We're going to have to be better on the kill. Our power play wasn't great either. Although, when I went through it, we actually had quite a few opportunities. Sometimes those stats can be a little deceiving, but at the end of the day, we've got to kill penalties."

Zibanejad and Panarin are dangerous enough offensively. Panarin finished the abbreviated regular season ranked third in the league in points (95) and tied for second in assists (63) in 69 games and is a Hart Trophy finalist. Zibanejad ranked fifth in the league in goals (41) and totaled 75 points in 57 games. Both are key contributors on the Rangers' man advantage, accounting for a combined 51 power-play points.

"They've got some elite players," Foegele said during Phase 3. "They definitely have some threats. We just have to stick to our system. We've been practicing all week on special teams. We'll try to limit their high-danger scoring chances."

Unpredictable Randomness

A best-of-five series, especially one following an extended break and a lone exhibition game, is likely going to be a toss-up. The hockey could be sloppy, the execution could be rusty and the results could be chaotic, much like you'd find in the preseason and even the first couple of weeks in the regular season.

This poses a challenge for the Canes, just as it does for anyone involved in the Cup Qualifiers.

Starts are constantly emphasized, whether it's starting off strong in the regular season so as not to get buried in the standings in October and November, or starting off strong in a game so as not have to climb out of a multi-goal deficit.

The team that establishes its game first in a best-of-five series will undoubtedly have the upper hand with very little margin for error for the opposition.

"You're not going to wait around on anybody for too long, whether it's the goalies or a player. If you feel like their game's not there, I don't think you can wait to get them going," Brind'Amour mused. "Now, a guy might have a bad game, but he still could be ready, you know what I mean? That's a different scenario. But if you feel like they're just not up to speed, I don't think any coach can wait around too long here. There's just not enough games."

The Bottom Line

In September, some four months removed from being ousted in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, the Canes began a new journey with renewed expectations and a strong foundation of the culture they fostered with a deep playoff run.

The Canes didn't set out to simply qualify for the playoffs again. They want to be the best team in the league and capture hockey's ultimate prize.

It's been a long wait, but a preseason, 68 games in the regular season and a near five-month pause later, the Canes finally have the opportunity to fulfill their day-one goal.

"I've been itching at the bit to get going here," Trocheck said. "I know all the guys in here really want to win a Stanley Cup. That's what we're fighting for."

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