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Stanley Cup Qualifiers preview: Hurricanes vs. Rangers

Carolina's experience, strong defense key against New York's scoring prowess

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Stanley Cup Qualifiers will use eight best-of-5 series and two four-team round-robins to determine the field and seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

NHL.com will preview every series and round-robin prior to the start of the Qualifiers on Saturday.

Today, the qualifier series between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.

 

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers

Hurricanes: 38-25-5, .596 points percentage

Rangers: 37-28-5, .564 points percentage

Season series: CAR 0-4-0; NYR 4-0-0

It could be a strength on strength series between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.

The Hurricanes are led by their talented and deep group of defensemen, although that might have taken a hit with an injury to Dougie Hamilton during training camp.

Hamilton hasn't played since Jan. 16, when he fractured his left fibula. He was healthy for most of camp but didn't skate in Carolina's final two practices before they left for Toronto for their first workout in the Eastern Conference hub city. 

However, Carolina has seven other healthy NHL defensemen: Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Sami Vatanen, Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner and Haydn Fleury.

"You can't have enough good D. We're lucky in that regard," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "The Rangers have a very, very good offensive team, so we're going to have to defend."

Brind'Amour is right. The Rangers were fifth in the NHL in scoring, averaging 3.33 goals per game. Their strength is in their top-six forward group, which features center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Artemi Panarin on separate lines. 

Panarin tied with Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak for third in the NHL with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists), including an NHL-best 71 even-strength points. He's a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player and the Hart Trophy as League MVP. Zibanejad was fifth in the League with 41 goals in 57 games. 

"When they get it, you feel like there is a [scoring] chance coming against you," Brind'Amour said.

 

[RELATED: Hurricanes-Rangers series debated by former players Cole, Richter]

 

This series also pits the Hurricanes' experience against the Rangers' inexperience.

Carolina could use as many as 14 players who played for it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, when it reached the Eastern Conference Final. Hurricanes players have combined to win the Stanley Cup seven times, including three for forward Justin Williams.

The Rangers could have nine players in their Game 1 lineup with no NHL postseason experience. They have no previous Stanley Cup champions on the roster.

"They're going to find out the guy in December who you were playing against that wasn't backchecking is going to backcheck," Rangers coach David Quinn said. "The guy who you went into the corner with who might have pulled up and let you win that puck race or puck battle is probably going to dig deeper. These are things you have to learn."

 

Game breakers

Hurricanes: Sebastian Aho led the Hurricanes with 66 points (38 goals, 28 assists) after scoring 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 15 playoff games last season. The center was tied for sixth in the NHL in goals, tied for seventh in even-strength goals (26), and tied for first in shorthanded goals (four). Aho scored 14 goals in Carolina's final 18 games before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, including 12 goals in 12 games from Jan. 31-Feb. 25. 

Rangers: Panarin received MVP votes, but Zibanejad was the hottest player in the NHL before the pause. He led the League with 23 goals and 36 points in 22 games from Jan. 31-March 11. Zibanejad scored goals in six straight games before the season was paused, including five in a game against the Washington Capitals on March 5. Like Aho for Carolina, Zibanejad also plays regularly on the New York penalty kill.

Video: WSH@NYR: Zibanejad scores five goals, OT winner

 

Goaltending

Hurricanes: Petr Mrazek (21-16-2, 2.69 goals-against average, .905 save percentage) started 11 of Carolina's 15 playoff games last season, going 5-5 with a 2.73 GAA and an .894 save percentage. His leash is short because James Reimer (14-6-2, 2.66, .914) also is a strong option now that he's healthy after missing the last seven games of the regular season with a lower-body injury.

Rangers: They have arguably the most interesting goaltending decision in the NHL with three talented goalies; a rookie who has shined, a potential Hockey Hall of Famer who has dominated Carolina, and an up-and-comer who has played well when called upon. Rookie Igor Shesterkin is the favorite after going 10-2-0 with a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage in 12 starts after being recalled from Hartford of the American Hockey League on Jan. 7. However, Henrik Lundqvist was 3-0-0 with a 2.33 GAA and .947 save percentage in three starts against Carolina this season. Alexandar Georgiev is an option, though likely the odd goalie out of the equation.

 

Numbers to know

Hurricanes: To amplify their defensive success, the Hurricanes were second in the NHL in shots-against per game (29.3), fourth on the penalty kill (84.0 percent), and tied for 11th in goals-against per game (2.84). They also were 11th in goals per game (3.19) and eighth on the power play (22.9 percent). The top line of Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen totaled 190 points (77 goals, 113 assists), scoring 35.4 percent of Carolina's 217 goals.

Rangers: To amplify their offensive success, the Rangers were seventh in the NHL on the power play (22.9 percent). They outscored the Hurricanes 17-9 in the season series. However, their struggles were on the other end. They were tied for 23rd in goals-against per game (3.14) and on the penalty kill (77.4 percent). They allowed 34.0 shots on goal per game, second most in the NHL, and they won 46.6 percent of their face-offs, better than only the Buffalo Sabres (45.9 percent).

 

X-factors

Hurricanes: Edmundson finished second on the Hurricanes in hits (118) and blocked shots (91). He was third on Carolina at 2:48 of shorthanded ice time per game, and his role is even more important now because defenseman Brett Pesce, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, will not be available in this series. Edmundson likely will get a lot of ice time against either Zibanejad or Panarin based on how the Hurricanes want to match up.

Rangers: Kaapo Kakko was one of the Rangers' stronger forwards during training camp. Quinn has referenced the 19-year-old rookie's poise, confidence and swagger on multiple occasions. Kakko scored 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 66 games this season. He's expected to play right wing on the third line with Filip Chytil and Phillip Di Giuseppe, but he moved up to the first line with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider when Pavel Buchnevich missed time during training camp.

Video: Hockey is Back: Rangers vs. Hurricanes Begins Aug. 1

 

They said it

"Going into this postseason, it's different for everybody, especially with the play-in round, but I don't expect the play-in round to be any less intense than the first round was last year or the conference final was last year. [Experience] definitely helps going into this." -- Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin

"I think the best learning tool is to experience it. Those lessons that we're going to learn are going to be invaluable. But this isn't about creating experience for us down the line, this is about us winning hockey games." -- Rangers coach David Quinn

 

Will win if …

Hurricanes: They play to their strengths by using their strong defensive game to control New York's forwards, turning the game around and going on the attack. The Hurricanes can't get caught up in trading chances with the Rangers, but if they play their puck control game, they will generate scoring opportunities against New York.

Rangers: Zibanejad and Panarin lead the way offensively. The Rangers game is predicated on speed and their team hockey IQ that helps them generate high-danger scoring chances off the rush and on in-zone controlled plays. They need their top two lines to consistently generate those chances to keep the pressure off their defense.

 

Hurricanes projected lineup

Andrei Svechnikov -- Sebastian Aho -- Teuvo Teravainen

Ryan Dzingel -- Vincent Trocheck -- Martin Necas

Nino Niederreiter -- Jordan Staal -- Justin Williams

Warren Foegele -- Jordan Martinook -- Brock McGinn

Jaccob Slavin -- Sami Vatanen

Brady Skjei -- Joel Edmundson

Jake Gardiner -- Trevor van Riemsdyk

Petr Mrazek

James Reimer

Scratched: Morgan Geekie, Haydn Fleury, Clark Bishop, Steven Lorentz, Max McCormick, Jake Bean, Roland McKeown, Anton Forsberg, Alex Nedeljkovic

Unfit to play: Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce

 

Rangers projected lineup

Chris Kreider -- Mika Zibanejad -- Pavel Buchnevich

Artemi Panarin -- Ryan Strome -- Jesper Fast

Phillip Di Giuseppe -- Filip Chytil -- Kaapo Kakko

Brett Howden -- Greg McKegg -- Julien Gauthier

Brendan Smith -- Jacob Trouba

Ryan Lindgren -- Adam Fox

Marc Staal -- Tony DeAngelo

Igor Shesterkin

Henrik Lundqvist

Scratched: Alexandar Georgiev, Libor Hajek, Steven Fogarty, Tim Gettinger, Vitali Kravtsov, Vinni Lettieri, Danny O'Regan, Brandon Crawley, Darren Raddysh

Suspended: Brendan Lemieux

Unfit to play: None

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