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2024 NHL PLAYOFF PREVIEW- New York Rangers vs. Carolina Hurricanes

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 02: New York Rangers Center Mika Zibanejad (93) in action during the National Hockey League game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers on November 2, 2023, at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire)

While not considered fierce rivals, there is no love lost between the Hurricanes and Rangers. They’ve had their battles over the years, meeting in the playoffs for the second time in three years with no shortage of ex-teammates on both rosters. The Rangers got the better of the matchup in their last playoff meeting, blowing out Carolina 6-2 on the road in Game 7. The series followed a familiar script of the Hurricanes owning the shot clock but being unable to score on the power play or finish their chances at even strength, a problem that was magnified when they had to play from behind.

Two years have gone by and there’s been some changes on both sides. Vincent Trocheck has gone from Carolina’s second line to the Rangers top line, The Hurricanes presumably have their starting goaltender Frederik Andersen healthy, Brent Burns is on their top pair instead of Tony DeAngelo and both teams are bringing deeper rosters to the table bolstered by the trade deadline. The main players are still here, though and the CliffNotes summary of both teams is similar to what it was then.

Carolina is still that heavy shot volume team that is going to wear you down on the forecheck and struggle to finish while the Rangers still rely on some quick-strike offense backed by a lethal power play and lean on goaltender Igor Shesterkin when they need to. Both clubs have made some improvements since 2021, though. Peter Laviolette has cleaned up the Rangers defensive play so they’re less reliant on their goaltending to steal games and their offense is more versatile compared to the counter-attack dependent team they were under Gerard Gallant. Carolina is also less of a one-trick pony with how they create their offense, showing some more patience with letting plays develop off the rush instead of firing every puck at the net. They also have a new toy in winger Jake Guentzel, who gives them a top line that can potentially matchup with the Rangers firepower.

Both made quick work of their first-round matchups, so what’s new about the Rangers and Carolina in 2023?

The Matchup:

Again, the look of these teams is similar to what it was in 2022, except Laviolette has cleaned up the Rangers play in the defensive zone, as they’re a much better team at getting through an aggressive forecheck now. It’s an interesting style matchup at even strength because Carolina doesn’t give up much off the rush and it’s borderline impossible to create anything against them on the forecheck. They aren’t the cleanest team with exiting the zone and will blindly throw the puck into the neutral zone at times, but they’re still one of the best teams at recovering the puck and at least making things a deadlock at even strength.

How this plays out in a series will depend on the sequence of a game. If Carolina gets a lead, they should be set (although their Game 5 against the Islanders suggests otherwise) while the Rangers can do enough things to frustrate them if the Canes are playing from behind. The one area off the rush where they’re the most prone is counterattacks from the defensive zone, which usually happens when Carolina is pushing for offense late and the Rangers are good enough off the rush to capitalize on these opportunities.

Both teams scored at a similar rate at five-on-five during the regular season (2.56 goals per 60 for Carolina vs. 2.5 for NYR), even though most would consider the Rangers the better finishing team. They have the best forward between both teams (Artemi Panarin) and their passing gives them an edge in all situations, but some of the plays that Panarin and Zibanejad like to create aren’t going to be open unless Carolina gets really careless with the puck or their defensive coverage, so this could be a tight series at five-on-five. That said, Rangers are setup to be a tough team to come back against because they can either force Carolina into playing more of a rush game, which they are excellent at countering against, or forcing them to play a safer, dump-and-chase style of game where they get 30+ shots with 90% of them being of the low-percentage variety.

Why The Rangers Will Win

The easiest way to pick the Rangers is to go down the three major positions and choose who the best player is. Most are probably picking Panarin, Adam Fox and Shesterkin for forward, defenseman and goalie respectively and it’s hard to argue against that. Panarin didn’t exactly light up the scoresheet in the first round against the Caps, but it’s hard to say that he didn’t look dangerous whenever he was out there. It’s hard for any stars to dominate in the playoffs, especially this season, so you just need them to have enough shifts where they can takeover a game. Panarin did that enough against Washington to put the Caps away and he’s still one of the best passers in the league, arguably the best at threading the needle to go east-west with the puck. You could have the best game plan in the world and Panarin is good enough to make that irrelevant in two seconds.

Fox is in a similar boat to Panarin, as he didn’t have his usual star-level production, but he’s still an auto-breakout for the Rangers and will be a thorn in the Hurricanes side when they try to get their forecheck going. Despite the two points, he was impactful in the Washington series, leading the team in zone exits with nine and only turning the puck over once. The Rangers also successfully exited the zone on 16 of his 23 retrievals, which puts him at an elite level when it comes to starting exits. What helps this year is he’s not on an island anymore. New York switching Braden Schneider to the second pair in place of Jacob Trouba really helped stabilize some of the Ranger’s issues with turnovers. Scheider is still young and has issues with dealing with forecheck pressure, but the Rangers are getting the puck out more than they give it away.

The defensive style they played under Gallant was frustrating for the Hurricanes to deal with even if it wasn’t pretty. They didn’t advance a lot of pucks and instead basically gave it back to Carolina where they were immediately pressured into a bad shot that Shesterkin could easily handle or moved the play along the wall where another puck battle would start. Under Laviolette, they’re doing a better job of moving the puck forward and pushing the play from the defensive zone. This could turn some 2-1 games into 3-1 or make Carolina’s aggressive defense back off at the line if they get burned. They can still play the new style, but they’ve learned some new tricks and can try things out until Carolina proves they can score at five-on-five.

This is where the other advantage is on paper, or at least in theory. Shesterkin was a major problem for Carolina two years ago and has given them trouble this year, shutting the Canes out in their last meeting back in March. He is coming off a down season for his standards, but he’s still the type you would expect to turn it on when the games get tougher. His playing style is also a nightmare for the Hurricanes because of how much they normally rely on rebounds, deflections and close-range changes. He’s very quick to drop down and take away anything that you can’t elevate, and it usually takes a great shot, a lucky bounce or perfect timing to beat him. This is where you’d hope the investment in Jake Guentzel pays off if you’re Carolina, as he’s someone who can elevate the puck from close range, but even he scored only one goal in the first round, and it was into an empty net. There’s a lot Carolina needs to go right for them to advance in this series.

This isn’t even getting into the home ice advantage factor. Madison Square Garden has been a house of horrors for the Canes in recent history, they’ve won only four out of their last 23 games there, which includes a 16-game losing streak that lasted over the span of seven seasons. Carolina has moved on from that, winning their last game at MSG 6-1, but home ice played a role in their last series with both teams taking the first three games on their turf until New York won Game 7 in Raleigh. We’ll see if the MSG hex plays a factor again.

Why The Hurricanes Will Win

The Hurricanes’ success will depend on if their forwards can make their shots, if their power play clicks and if Freddie Andersen holds strong in net. They had some of that going for them in their series against the Islanders. Their power play struck in four out of five games and has a lot of different weapons they can turn to. Guentzel might not be making an impact on the scoresheet, but him in the bumper spot is what makes it go. Whether it’s directing traffic or drawing defenders in front of the net, he makes Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis’ lives a whole lot easier. Carolina is hoping he will see more of a reward for it on the scoresheet this round, as converting on those close-range chances is going to be key. Their second unit isn’t too bad either and could play a factor as they start to eat into some of the Rangers more tired skaters on the second half of the penalty kill.

If Carolina has a depth advantage, it’s on the wings. They split up their top line of Guentzel-Aho-Jarvis in Game 2, replacing Jarvis with Andrei Svechnikov and it helped both parties. Svechnikov and Jarvis are their best bet to have one of their forwards breakout against Shesterkin. Jarvis can pick a corner if he gets room and Svechnikov brings a dual threat that most of their other forwards don’t have, showing off some terrific playmaking skill in the opening round. The defense probably shouldn’t be overlooked here either, as Burns, Skjei, Orlov and even Chatfield are always a threat to contribute offensively. All four have heavy shots and will jump into the play if the opportunity presents itself. Washington had to activate their defense to get anything off the rush against the Rangers and the script will probably be similar for Carolina.

The Canes defense is the bedrock of their team after all. As stated earlier, they don’t give up a lot and this is the deepest they’ve ever been, especially if they get Brett Pesce back. Dmitry Orlov on your third pair is a luxury most teams would kill to have and Jalen Chatfield’s going to a more known player in a couple months when he hits free agency. His mobility is a great asset to have with how much man-to-man defending Carolina does and it should limit how much the Rangers can create off the cycle. If Carolina can limit the rush play and shutdown the Rangers when they try to regroup on entries, they should be in good shape because New York is very deliberate with how they play off the cycle. Carolina’s aggressive defensive zone coverage makes that a tough matchup, so there’s the potential for them to make the Rangers dependent on special teams if they can’t make any adjustments. Getting Pesce back for the series would make this easier for Carolina, though.

Special teams are going to be the ultimate struggle in this series. Carolina’s power play is running hot and so is the Rangers penalty kill, even scoring a shorthanded goal against the Caps. Carolina also has a top ranked penalty kill and the Rangers power play is going to be a huge test for them. They threw a few different looks against the Caps, moving Trocheck around the zone to get him open in the slot while Washington’s PK sold out to block the cross-seam pass. Carolina’s penalty kill isn’t going to let Panarin and Fox dance around the zone as easily, but it only takes one misread for them to make you look silly. Still, the Hurricanes penalty killers are a disciplined group. They like to pressure you, but their main job is to give the goaltender just the shooter to worry about instead of a screen, a rebound or an extra pass.

Of course, some of this comes down to the star players, namely Sebastian Aho. He’s never had a bad playoff series objectively and he is Mr. Do-It All for Carolina. There is just another level you expect him to reach if he’s going to carry the Hurricanes through a playoff series where the other team has more “star” players. He does a lot for the team, playing on both special teams units and is the catalyst for most of their offense. You just want to see him (or anyone) take over a game when they need a spark. We’ve seen it in the first round plenty of times, including this year, now he just needs to get over the hump.