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Stanley Cup Playoffs

Both the Hurricanes and Rangers are seeking a boost to their legitimacy and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in their second round series. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Hurricanes vs. Rangers

Both the Hurricanes and Rangers are seeking a boost to their legitimacy and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in their second round series. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Hurricanes vs. Rangers

No one would say that the Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers aren’t a good team. No team in Round 2 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, isn’t. But it also probably wouldn’t take long before they threw a “but…” into that sentence as well. While the Rangers finished seventh in the league this season, lots of their success was due to a Vezina worthy season from Igor Shesterkin and dominant special teams, which tend to be less of a factor in the playoffs. Their underlying numbers at 5-on-5 were among the league’s worst. And while they prevailed in their first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, many would quickly throw qualifiers on that; namely that Pittsburgh was forced to use third-string goalie Louis Domingue for most of the series, which turned for good when Sidney Crosby was injured on a high hit by Jacob Trouba in Game 5.

The Hurricanes, on the other hand, are facing a different kind of pressure. For four seasons now, Carolina has been one of the league’s most dangerous teams; Rod Brind’Amour’s systems have produced some of the best 5-on-5 results in the game over the last four seasons. In each of the last two, Carolina’s record has matched their playdriving prowess with consecutive division titles. But the effects of a ten-year playoff drought don’t fade away instantly. Yes, the Hurricanes did make the 2019 Eastern Conference Final. But just how convincingly they were swept aside by Boston proved they weren’t at the level of greatness needed to truly contend. Same with how last year’s team couldn’t get going against the Lightning in Round 2.

This series represents not just a chance at advancing to the Eastern Conference Final for these clubs. It’s also a chance to squash lots of the doubt surrounding them. A series victory would be a huge boost to either team’s legitimacy, especially New York’s. But only one of these teams can get it.

Carolina Hurricanes (54-20-8, No. 1 Metro) vs. New York Rangers (52-24-6, No. 2 Metro)

Recent History: The teams have never met in a best-of-seven series before. However, they did square off in the Qualifier Round as part of the expanded 2020 playoffs. It really wasn’t much of a series, as the Hurricanes controlled play against a Rangers team that had lost of all of its momentum from their strong play down the stretch run of the regular season. Carolina was the only team in the Qualifier Round to pull off a three-game sweep.

Season Series: Carolina unsurprisingly won the expected goals battle in every game against the Rangers this season. In fact, they generated over 60% of the expected goals thrice, including a jaw-dropping 76.17% mark on March 20. The Hurricanes somehow lost that game 2-0, because Igor Shesterkin can do some incredible th–oh wait, Alexandar Georgiev started that game. That was the lone meeting the Rangers won, though, as Carolina allowed just five 5-on-5 goals in their four meetings. The Hurricanes scored four in their first matchup. All of those matchups came in 2022, including three post trade deadline. We’ll see if that makes this is a more accurate predictor of what’s to come than in other series.

The Last Time Here: Last year’s playoffs were a bit of a dud in Carolina. After finishing with the league’s third-best record, it took much more than expected to eliminate the Predators in a six-game series where the last four games required overtime. Perhaps that extra hockey explains why they looked so outmatched by the Lightning in Round 2. The usually play-driving Carolina beast sputtered out a 45% expected goals share over the final three games of the series. They struggled to finish, especially at home, and were knocked out in five games.

The Rangers were a Round 2 staple for most of the mid-2010s, reaching this juncture five times in six seasons from 2012-2017. That 2017 playoff run represents their last trip to the second round before this year. The Rangers were probably the better team than the Ottawa Senators. But Ottawa managed to overcome late deficits in Games 2 and 5, winning both in overtime, and getting the extra clutch performances you need come playoff time from players like J.G. Pageau and Craig Anderson to eliminate the Rangers in six.

The Road Thus Far: Carolina once again went through the ringer in Round 1, although that was less of a shock this year. The Hurricanes seemed like a different team in front of the raucous PNC Arena crowd, outscoring the Bruins 18-6 at home while being outscored 14-6 on the road. The Hurricanes managed five goals in three of their four home games but never scored more than two away from Raleigh. Once surprising note: the Bruins actually took it to Carolina at 5-on-5. Perhaps it’s not worth looking too much into that trend, though. While the Hurricanes have lost the expected goals battle in each of their three recent series against Boston (2019, 2020, 2022), that’s only happened in one other playoff series under Rod Brind’Amour’s watch.

The Rangers were outplayed to an even worse degree; their 37.69% expected goals share was easily the worst of any team in these playoffs. It’s comparable to the play of the 2021 Blues against the Avalanche and the Jets against the Canadiens that same year; you know, two teams who were swept aside in dominant fashion. Though he allowed at least three goals in six of the seven games, credit Igor Shesterkin for keeping the Rangers in it. New York’s power-play was the third best of any team in Round 1 (31.6%), and it came through in some big moments — none bigger of course than overtime of Game 7, with Artemi Panarin scoring the winner. All of the Rangers’ top-four regular season series finished at least at a point-per-game pace in Round 1. Credit to the big guys for getting the job done.

Carolina Wins Because: They’re the better team, and they’re getting healthy. That makes an already deep Hurricanes team even more formidable. In recent years, the Hurricanes have formed one of the league’s best lines in Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teräväinen, and figured out the rest behind them. In these playoffs they’ve made a very effective change, moving Seth Jarvis to the top line in place of Teravainen. The rookie Jarvis finished tied for the Carolina lead with three goals against Boston. The new look top-line had a 54% expected goals share in Round 1. That’s good in itself, but when you factor in the trickle down effect of now having Teravainen on a different line, it makes the Canes even more deadly.

That’s assuming they find the right combinations behind them, as Teravainen played most of the series with Vincent Trocheck. That duo somehow out scored the Bruins 6-0 on a 26.09% shooting while generating a poor 31.43% expected goals share. Carolina certainly isn’t lacking for quality center options; Jordan Staal was a defensive force in Round 1, Jesperi Kotkaniemi led Carolina in expected goals percentage against Boston, and Max Domi scored five points (including two goals in Game 7) and has some experience playing center as well.

The most pivotal matchup in this series is how well Carolina can shutdown the Rangers top scorers. New York’s top-six can do plenty of damage, and they don’t need a lot of chances to do it. The Hurricanes largely have their three defense pairs set in stone, but each left something to be desired in Round 1. That’s least true for the Jaccob Slavin-Tony DeAngelo pair; the latter of course being a name Rangers fans know all too well. Slavin is truly one of the league’s best defenders, and he finished ninth by Corey Sznajder’s game score metric among all NHL defensemen in Round 1 (DeAngelo was actually fifth, though). And while the Hurricanes ended Round 1 the same way they finished the regular season in expected goals against per 60, they did so against much stronger condition. That’s a win in my book.

But Carolina’s ability to limit goals is most dependent on their goaltending, which is most dependent on who’s doing the goaltending. Both Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov were fine against the Bruins. Frederik Andersen, Carolina’s starter, was a bit better than fine in the regular season. And by that I mean he finished third in the league behind Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy with 27.8 goals saved above expected. The Penguins probably knock off the Rangers if they didn’t receive the worst goaltending of any team in the first round. If Andersen’s in net, that fear basically goes out the window for Carolina; as long as you (and Andersen) can get past some of Andersen’s playoff shortcomings in Toronto the last half decade. That and if Andersen can come back in this series; Raanta appears to be the starter at first, so we’ll see when/if Andersen returns.

New York Wins Because: They’ve got the high-end talent to take advantage of Carolina’s biggest weakness: its defense. It’s weird to say that about the team that finished the first round 12th in expected goals for per 60, but other than Shesterkin, this is the Rangers’ biggest strength. Their defense is going to be a weakness, especially against a Carolina team that thrived by scoring goals around the front of the net against Boston, which was a major problem for the Rangers in the Pittsburgh series. Deflection goals were common and costly, and the Rangers aren’t going to magically fix this issue overnight. They can be better, of course, but probably not actually good in that area.

Instead, let’s focus on what the Rangers do when they have the puck, which is more positive. That oft-maligned defense does do a good job of breaking the puck out and avoiding failed exits. Carolina will get their chances. But if the Rangers can keep them from setting up shop in the offensive zone, that’s a good sign. Every Ranger regular defensemen was better than league average at avoiding botched retrievals and failed zone exits per 60, with Adam Fox unsurprisingly grading out as one of the league’s best in this area.

Fox is of course the quarterback of New York’s excellent power-play, which ranked fourth in the NHL in expected goals per 60 in the regular season. It’s a unit that relies heavily on Fox and Artemi Panarin on entries and does a strong job of creating quality chances once getting set-up. New York was 4-0 against the Penguins when scoring at least one power-play goal and 0-3 when they failed to light the lamp. They’re going to need to translate that prowess to 5-on-5, though; the Hurricanes ranked just 19th in the regular season in expected goals against per 60. They were actually the best team in the league at limiting xG while on the PK, though. So it’s far from a given New York’s power-play will dominant.

For a team that was just tied for 27th in the regular season in shots on goal, the Rangers do have a couple of decently high-volume shooters. Adding Frank Vatrano and (to a lesser extent in this aspect) Andrew Copp helped in that regard. Chris Kreider’s shooting percentage bender showed no signs of slowing down. And Mika Zibanejad had flashes of the player who at a 59-goal pace for 82 games in 2019-20. And Artemi Panarin is coming into this series with a boatload of momentum after scoring the Game 7 OT winner. Especially if Andersen isn’t back right away or at full health to start this series, it’s easy to see a world where the Rangers top players overwhelm Carolina’s netminder.

The final but probably most important part of the equation is Igor Shesterkin. Most fans would probably be surprised to hear that Shesterkin actually stopped 3.8 goals above expected, the fourth most in the league in Round 1. It certainly wasn’t a perfect series, though; Shesterkin was pulled in his first two career playoff road starts. He allowed at least three goals in six of seven contests. That speaks more to just how dramatically the Penguins outshot and outchanced the Rangers. All of that happened, and Shesterkin still just about stood on his head.

For New York to win this series, they’ll need Shesterkin to be more than good; they need him to be the Vezina front-runner he was in the regular season. The guy who stopped almost six more goals above expected than any other netminder. Shesterkin played good in Round 1, but didn’t truly steal any games for the Rangers. He’ll need to do that at least once, probably twice, in this series.

The Pick: The Rangers deserve a ton of credit for getting to this point. And the playoff experience this run has afforded Shesterkin, Alexis Lafrenière, Kappo Kakko, and K’Andre Miller is invaluable. The second round is often viewed as a massive litmus test for teams like them; ones who made the playoffs surprisingly or/and with significant flaws. Winning even one playoff series certainly isn’t easy. But the right amount of luck, combined with doing some good things (even if they aren’t nearly as good as what your opponent is doing), can carry a team through.

Replicating that is obviously more difficult. Not only just because the sample size gets larger; but because the next team is generally better than the one before. That’s the case here; Carolina has nailed its formula over the last four seasons. They perhaps know what they are better than any other team in the league. Yes, their usual well-oiled machine at 5-on-5 is leaking a bit of oil coming into this series. But all prior evidence suggests that won’t be the case much longer. And even if it is, the looming return of Frederik Andersen could patch those struggles on its own. Shesterkin will likely deliver that true first “steal” of a playoff win in this series. And the Rangers have enough talent to pull out at least one more victory. But Carolina is just too strong for New York to push them any further. Hurricanes in 6.

Read more about a very good and underrated key Carolina defender here.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the predictions are mine. Let’s go short and sweet for this one. This season marked the first time since 2017-18 Sebastian Aho didn’t have a hat-trick. In other words, every time Carolina’s made the playoffs since his debut in 2016-17, he has exactly one three goal game. It’s too late for him to make it four straight regular seasons with one, but 2021-22 isn’t over yet. Aho gets his HT at some point in this series.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick, Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones (subscribe to his Patreon here) and Moneypuck.com

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