In what should be a fantastic back-and-forth series, the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers head to Toronto to face off in the qualifying round of the postseason. 2019 was a huge year for both of these organizations; the Hurricanes exceeded expectations by upsetting two top-five teams to reach the Eastern Conference Final, and the Rangers added Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin to their elite offense. Carolina has the experience, but New York has the star. Which will prevail in this best-of-five series?
When John Tavares left the Island to live out his childhood dream, the New York Islanders adopted an identity that carried them to the fifth-best record in the 2018-19 regular season. The Carolina Hurricanes adopted an identity even stronger than the Islanders’, sweeping them in the second round of the 2018-19 NHL Playoffs. That identity has carried over to this season, giving them the potential to defeat any team.
If I had to use one word to describe the identity of the Carolina Hurricanes, it would be “pressure.” Particularly in the offensive zone, the Hurricanes always strive to outwork their opponents by dumping the puck in and winning battles that create high-quality chances. Per The Point Hockey, the Hurricanes rank first in dump-in rate, forecheck chances, and inner slot shots, exhibiting their excellence in multiple aspects of offensive-zone play. First, they stick to their identity of putting pressure on the opponents by dumping the puck in and going after it. Although carrying the puck in is usually more efficient than dumping the puck in, the Hurricanes understand that dumping the puck in fits their identity, so they maximize their opportunities in this fashion. Second, once they dump the puck in, they immediately chase it and look to create high-quality offensive chances. Their ability to create inner slot shots off the forecheck better than any other NHL team shows how they can maximize both offensive-zone ice time and offensive-zone efficiency. Additionally, the Hurricanes’ power-play is among the league’s best, as it ranks number one in Expected Goals For per 60 Minutes (xGF/60). Their effectiveness in the offensive zone both at even strength and on the power play makes them an elite and resilient offensive team.
Their defense, while known for its depth around the hockey community, is actually rather average. The Hurricanes rank 17th-best in Goals Against per 60 Minutes (GA/60) at even strength and 4th-best in GA/60 shorthanded. Although the overall impact may remain approximately average, it is undoubtedly frustrating to the opponents to be pressured in the defensive zone over a five-game series. Additionally, Carolina ranks approximately league-average defensively despite playing half the season without potential Norris Trophy candidate Dougie Hamilton. One of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL, Hamilton can serve as a phenomenal leader of the defense core as he makes his way back onto the ice. In the postseason, important players tend to receive a bit more ice time, and the Hurricanes can play elite defensemen Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin whenever the team is in need of a defensive boost. Led by Hamilton and Slavin, the Hurricanes have the defensive depth to shut down any offensive attack at any point.
The goaltending situation for Carolina is a bit unclear, so it is difficult to look too far into it. Both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are in the running to play in this series, and both goaltenders have put together very strong campaigns. Mrazek, the starter for the majority of the year, ranks within the top 20 goaltenders in Goals Above Expected (GSAx). Reimer, who has still received his fair share of work between the pipes, ranks third in GSAx among all goaltenders. In other words, the Hurricanes really cannot go wrong with this choice. Mrazek and Reimer both have experience playing in high-leverage playoff situations, and it is hard to imagine that either of them will not be up to the task of facing the high-powered offense of the New York Rangers.
New York Rangers
It is difficult even to describe the extent to which Artemi Panarin has boosted this offense into one of the best in the NHL. Although both the Rangers and the Hurricanes are effective offensively, they excel in completely different aspects of the offensive game. Whereas the Hurricanes, as previously addressed, thrive through sustaining pressure on the forecheck, the Rangers thrive off the rush. Per The Point Hockey, the Rangers rank third in goals scored off the rush in the entire NHL, which exhibits the effectiveness of this offense when they have time and space. Now they get their fastest forward, Chris Kreider, back, which can only improve their transition game. Ranking seventh in the NHL in Goals For per 60 Minutes (GF/60) at even strength, the Rangers are excellent at creating offensive chances and finishing them. Additionally, their power play ranks within the top ten in both GF/60 and xGF/60, so if Carolina struggles to stay out of the penalty box, this series could get out of hand.
Defensively, however, the New York Rangers have endured far more struggles. Per The Point Hockey, the Rangers rank 30th in inner slot shots against, 31st in rush chances against, and 30th in expected goals against; in other words, the Rangers are really poor in the defensive zone and entering their defensive zone. Arguably the worst defensive team in hockey, the Rangers defense is centered around Adam Fox, a rookie two-way defenseman, and Tony DeAngelo, a primarily offensive defenseman. Unless Fox continues his regular-season dominance into the playoffs, the Rangers may lack a true number one defensive defenseman. To make matters worse, the Rangers rank dead last in Shorthanded Goals Above Replacement, as their penalty kill has cost them almost 15 goals this season. I previously said that the series could get out of hand if Carolina takes too many penalties, but I can say with confidence that the series will get out of hand if the Rangers take too many penalties, given Carolina’s elite power play and the Rangers’ weak penalty kill.
Similar to Carolina, New York has a very unpredictable goaltending situation. Do you go with your goaltender of the future? Do you go with your best goaltender over the last few years? Do you go with the best goaltender of the past decade? It seems as if any of these options are considered reasonable, which is why the potential impact of each of Igor Shestyorkin, Alexandar Georgiev, and Henrik Lundqvist, must be taken into consideration. Also similar to the Hurricanes’ situation, the Rangers’ situation seemingly has no wrong answers. In GSAx, Shestyorkin ranks 11th, Lundqvist ranks 16th, and Georgiev ranks 22nd among NHL goaltenders, as each player has exceeded replacement-level production. Whereas Shestyorkin might be the most talented, Lundqvist is the most experienced, so David Quinn truly can pick his ideal attributes in a playoff goaltender. Regardless of who starts in net, the starting goaltender for the Rangers is capable of bailing out the defense in front of him or falling victim to the high-quality production of the opponents, allowed by the Rangers’ defense.
This is an exciting matchup, as it will be extremely difficult to predict each individual game, let alone the outcome of the entire series. Nonetheless, this is a poor matchup for the Rangers, as their biggest weakness, preventing high-quality chances, plays right into the biggest strength of the Hurricanes, creating high-quality chances. The Rangers will rely far too much on a rookie goaltender and on young defensemen, which is a potential recipe for disaster. They will have to play nearly perfect hockey to emerge victorious in this series, as any mistakes in the defensive zone or any penalties taken could be the difference-maker, given Carolina’s elite offense and elite power play. The Rangers are beyond capable of stealing two games from the Hurricanes, but the more disciplined and structured team ultimately should come out on top. The pressure that the Hurricanes put on the Rangers defense to outperform the level they have played at for the entire season will be too much for the Rangers to handle. Thus, I expect the Carolina Hurricanes to win this series in five games.
The Verdict: The Carolina Hurricanes defeat the New York Rangers in five games
All stats are from Evolving-Hockey unless indicated otherwise.