CAROLINA HURRICANES – By Ryan Kennedy
One of the best possession teams in the NHL, Carolina rides a balanced attack and a lineup that has given coach Rod Brind’Amour major buy-in on most nights. The Hurricanes can press you with an unforgiving forecheck, or they can rely on their skill to push them through on other nights.
Injuries had taken a bite out of Carolina’s blueline before the season was paused, but the Hurricanes will have their top defenseman back in the lineup for the NHL’s summertime Stanley Cup tournament. Dougie Hamilton, who had a great first half before fracturing the fibula in his left leg in January, is ready to rejoin the team. Another stalwart D-man, Brett Pesce, was initially thought to be finished due to shoulder surgery in March, but there’s a chance he could come back if Carolina advances deep in the playoffs. GM Don Waddell acquired slick skaters Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen at the trade deadline, so there’s plenty of depth on the back end.
Up front, sophomore left winger Andrei Svechnikov has been a revelation on the top line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, giving the Hurricanes a scary, high-scoring trio. Adding Vincent Trocheck from Florida at the deadline further buttressed a group that plays solid two-way hockey, and any lineup featuring Justin Williams is going to carry itself with a little more confidence. Carolina’s ability to pluck players from AHL Charlotte, which won the Calder Cup last season, has meant great depth as well, most recently demonstrated by rookie center Morgan Geekie.
If there’s one big question mark in Carolina, it’s in net – and no, the Canes can’t sign undefeated EBUG David Ayres. Both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have battled injuries, but ideally Mrazek is the guy in the crease once the playoffs begin. He posted two shutouts in 11 appearances last post-season when the Hurricanes advanced to the conference final.
X-factor: Not that long ago, Vincent Trocheck was seen as an elite two-way center in the making, racking up 75 points for the Florida Panthers in 2017-18. Injuries and inconsistency have slowed him down, but Carolina needs him to be that secondary threat if it’s going to make another run. Trocheck got off to a slow start with his new team, and he’ll have to get up to speed, figuratively and literally, because one of the guys he was traded for – Erik Haula – is the type of fast and unforgiving player who’s tailor-made for the post-season. It’s time for Trocheck to live up to the standard he set for himself just a few years ago.
NEW YORK RANGERS – By Ryan Kennedy
The NHL’s extended field means the Rangers are still alive instead of getting jobbed by the regular divisional playoff format. Now that New York has a ticket, the team could very well play a spoiler/underdog role in the tournament.
Blessed with Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin as the leader of the offense, the Rangers come at opponents with a two-pronged attack: center Mika Zibanejad typically played on another line and was having a monster season before the pandemic, racking up a career-best 41 goals in 57 games, many in the second half. In fact, Zibanejad’s goals-per-game rate (0.72) was the best in the NHL this season, ahead of Rocket Richard Trophy co-winners Alex Ovechkin (0.71) and David Pastrnak (0.69). The extended season break also allowed Chris Kreider to heal from a broken foot. In ordinary times, he would’ve just been coming back for the start of the playoffs. Now he’ll have a training camp to get back up to speed.
Speaking of speed, the Rangers have an impressive assortment of skaters on the back end, led by Tony DeAngelo and rookie Adam Fox. What the Blueshirts do need, however, is the puck on their sticks more often. New York was one of the worst possession teams in the NHL, and typically those squads don’t last long in the post-season.
Having said that, the Rangers do have a gem in net with rookie Igor Shesterkin, who proved more than capable of handling Broadway’s searing spotlight in his first year. Of course, Rangers icon Henrik Lundqvist is still in town, so coach David Quinn will have to make a choice that no doubt won’t please everyone. True, Lundqvist has won Olympic gold and was a star when the Rangers played for the Stanley Cup in 2014 – L.A. would’ve swept New York without him – but that was a long time ago in hockey years. On the other hand, Shesterkin has some KHL playoff experience (backup on a title team), but none over here.
X-factor: DeAngelo was a revelation for the Rangers this season, nearly doubling his career-best output with 53 points in 68 games. Even more impressive, his 34 even-strength points tied him for third in the league among blueliners. Defensive-zone play has never been a strength for DeAngelo, however, so he’ll have to buckle down if this team is going to make any headway in the playoffs. He was one of the team’s best possession defensemen, but DeAngelo also started more shifts in the offensive zone than any other blueliner. Can New York get enough of the good stuff from DeAngelo to make up for his deficiencies?
Nov. 7, 2019: Rangers 4, Hurricanes 2
Nov. 27, 2019: Rangers 3, Hurricanes 2
Dec. 27, 2019: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 3
Feb. 21, 2020: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 2
Saturday, Aug. 1, 12:00 p.m.: Rangers at Hurricanes
Monday, Aug. 3, 12:00 p.m.: Rangers at Hurricanes
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 8:00 p.m.: Hurricanes at Rangers
Thursday, Aug. 6, TBD: Hurricanes at Rangers *
Saturday, Aug. 8, TBD: Rangers at Hurricanes *
(all games listed in eastern time)
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Hurricanes in five games
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