The Metropolitan division is a gauntlet. It took seven games apiece on either side to figure out who would play who, but we have our answer: Carolina and New York. Fitting that it’s the two top seeds, but the margins were razor thin along the way. Both series were expected to be close and they played out exactly to script.
For a while it didn’t look like Carolina would need seven games to dispatch Boston, but it was a true homer series and the Hurricanes were blessed to have home ice. As for the Rangers, it looked extremely unlikely they would be here at all after going down 3-1 in their series against the Penguins. But some injuries on the other side created a path that they were able to capitalize on.
Now comes the matchup to determine who represents the division in the conference finals. This one doesn’t look as close as the other two.
Carolina holds the edge in this one as expected for the higher seed. The Hurricanes enter the series with a 64 percent chance of winning which is either too high if all you care about is the standings or too low if you watched any of the Rangers games from the first round. The Rangers were absolutely dominated, barely squeezing past a team that started a third-string goalie for five of seven games — but they still won as they have all season.
The Rangers are an enigma in that regard and it feels likely that a series against Carolina will play out in a similar way: a maddeningly lopsided scoring chance counter that’s undone entirely by goaltending. That’s their edge and it works for them, but it’s far from a reliable one as the Rangers were mere inches away from losing the first round in five games. The way Carolina wins games is much more dependable.
Given Carolina’s recent history, there is some concern that a series against the best goalie in the league is a recipe for disaster for a team that sometimes struggles to actually capitalize on their chances. If there’s any goalie that can steal a series it’s the one wearing blue between these two teams, and if there’s any team that’ll let them it’s the one wearing red. Carolina is favored for a reason and wins this series two-thirds of the time, but there’s a reason it’s not more lopsided. This won’t be a cakewalk.
The Hurricanes’ play in front of the blue paint is a major reason why they’re favored in this series — and they’re no pushover in the crease, either.
Carolina was a top-five team in generating offense in the regular season, and they converted on their chances at a high rate. But the Corsi Canes’ play took a hit below the surface against Boston, but their results exceeded expectations and their regular season results.
Offense was a weakness of the Rangers’ throughout the season, but their finishing ability hid some of their gaps. Against Pittsburgh, they increased their shot rate but still struggled in the quality areas. New York’s goals rate ticked up in their seven-game series, but it’s still shy of Carolina’s.
Now match those offenses up with each team’s defense.
The Rangers improved play in their own zone after the deadline, but all of that fell apart in the postseason. They allowed a high rate of shots and quality chances, and when Igor Shesterkin wasn’t at his usual elite level, it hurt them on the scoresheet. If their defense stays wide open in Round 2 and continues to bleed quality chances against, they’re going to need their goaltending to be perfect to even stand a chance.
On the flip side, the Rangers will have to find a way to break through Carolina’s defense. This was the best team at limiting shots against in the regular season. Boston found a way to push against that in Round 1, but they’re a much stronger offensive team than their next opponent. But even when quality chances slipped through, goaltending was there to be the difference-maker.
While Carolina has the five-on-five advantage, special teams are closer. The Hurricanes take a lot of penalties and have had an elite penalty kill to back them up — the Bruins did find a way to push them on the power play, though. The Rangers, on the other side, have a dangerous power play that boosted their creation in Round 1.
Then there’s Carolina’s power play that had some shortcomings in the regular season against New York’s penalty kill that ranked in the top 10. The Hurricanes’ scoring took a step back in Round 1, as did the Rangers’ penalty kill.
After a Vezina and Hart caliber regular season, the Rangers came into the playoffs with the best goaltender in Igor Shesterkin. The only question was how he’d perform in his first NHL postseason — and he quickly answered with an outstanding performance in Game 1. He faced 8.8 expected goals against, the most a goalie has faced in the playoffs in the data era ever, and finished with the second-best performance with a GSAx of 4.5. He followed that up with another stellar performance in Game 2. His next two outings were a bit more shaky, but above all else he had no support in front of him. The Rangers absolutely left their goaltender hung out to dry, and he didn’t respond up to his usual standards.
When it mattered the most, in Game 7, Shesterkin was sharp and ultimately, he ended Round 1 with a .911 save percentage and stopped 4.6 goals above expected. If he’s at his best this next series, the Rangers could have a chance — this caliber goalie can steal a series and this team knows that firsthand from the Henrik Lundqvist era. But against this Hurricanes team, he likely will have even less support than before, putting even more emphasis on his play.
The Rangers had a massive goaltending edge against Pittsburgh, facing Louis Domingue for most of their series, and still barely squeaked by. Things are going to be different in this series, especially with Frederik Andersen potentially returning at some point. It sounds like he might be available if it’s a long series and that would be a big boost for the Hurricanes. He was one of their most important players this season and he represents a 2.4-win upgrade from Antti Raanta. Four wins still isn’t close to Shesterkin, but it’s closer at the very least.
That’s not to discredit the performance Raanta put up himself in the opening round. He was really strong in six games for the Hurricanes posting a .927 save percentage and saving three goals above expected, the sixth-best mark in the playoffs so far. The question is whether he can keep it up for another round and that lack of certainty is the difference between his projected value and Andersen’s. There’s a lot more comfort knowing Andersen is in between the pipes, but Raanta is far from a bad backup plan.
It’s also helpful that Carolina doesn’t need to rely on its goalies so much to succeed — the Hurricanes are backed by a tremendous defence corps with a strong commitment to team defence. It was a bit difficult to assert that against a very strong Bruins team, but should be much easier against a Rangers team that struggles to control the run of play.
That’s to be expected of DeAngelo, who was brought in to facilitate offence from the back end and he’s thrived in that role as a Hurricane. He’s a strong puck-mover and a great power-play quarterback, but was also able to handle himself well on the top pair next to Slavin. It’s not the hardest job with a partner of that caliber, but not any player can do it either. For the series DeAngelo’s 54 percent expected goals rate led all Carolina defenders.
That probably has more to do with Slavin, though, who has proven himself to be Carolina’s driver from the back end. He’s an elite presence and was a major key to stifling Boston’s attack. He was the only other Hurricane defender above 50 percent in expected goals and the Hurricanes outscored Boston 10-3 at five-on-five when he was on the ice. Pretty impressive. Expect great numbers against the Rangers as well, as this pair will be very tough for them to crack.
The other two pairs are a bit more vulnerable, but that likely comes down to opponent rather than ability. It may be a problem in later rounds, but probably not in this one in terms of a puck possession standpoint.
Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei proved to be a reasonably strong second pairing with shutdown abilities this season. That wasn’t a surprise for Pesce, but it was nice to see Skjei’s numbers finally align with the opinion many have of him. During the year they had a strong 54 percent expected goals percentage but that dropped to 43 percent for Pesce and 38 percent for Skjei against Boston. Those are not good numbers and speak to a vulnerable pair that may get exposed against stronger teams. The Rangers will pose an interesting test towards that — if this pair can’t get it together against the weakest five-on-five team in the playoffs they may be in serious trouble later on.
Carolina’s third pair was also out-chanced, which isn’t ideal and it’s possible we see more of Ethan Bear in this series as a result. That Carolina has a player of that caliber waiting in the wings is a nice luxury.
The Rangers’ defense, on the other hand, isn’t their greatest asset.
Their No. 1 is projected to be the most valuable defenseman in this series, with Adam Fox coming in at 3.4 wins. The reigning Norris Trophy winner is one of the best players in New York thanks to his elite puck-moving abilities and vision. He may not be the speediest skater or the most physical, but he thrives thanks to his smarts and calm under pressure.
What worked against him in the first round was being a part of a particularly imbalanced pair when Ryan Lindgren was out of the lineup. That led to time alongside Justin Braun, which tested the entire blue line. The Braun-Fox pairing was below break-even in shots and absolutely disastrous when it came to managing quality chances, with a sub-27 percent expected goals rate at five-on-five.
With his trusty partner back in the fold, possibly held together by duct tape as Lindgren deals with who knows how many injuries, the Rangers are going to need Fox to be the Adam Fox of the last two years — the player who quickly became a cornerstone of the franchise with his excellent play. This is the duo that’s likely going to be tasked with going against top competition, just as they have been over the last two seasons.
In Round 1, with the Lindgren injury factoring in, it was Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller facing off against the dynamic Sidney Crosby line more consistently. The task just became too steep for this duo — overall they earned just a 34.5 percent expected goals rate at five-on-five through seven games. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doomed in Round 2. But it’s still a red flag that all six Rangers blueliners, including Miller in Trouba, find themselves with a sub-41 percent expected goals rate after the series with Pittsburgh.
A healthy Lindgren restores some order. That may help Miller and Trouba bounce back with their workloads slightly eased. Miller was one of the best Rangers in the second half of the season, finding a way to use his size and strength to his advantage, along with his skating stride and long reach. His game should help neutralize their opponent, but that’s asking a lot of the second-year skater and it’s going to have to be an effort by committee against this aggressive team.
The third pair is the weakest of the bunch; Patrik Nemeth played his way out of the lineup with some lackluster defensive efforts and undisciplined play that is particularly problematic for someone who should be on the penalty kill. That’s why Braun’s playing in his place, which is a slight upgrade alongside rookie Braden Schenider.
Up front, the Rangers have some star power headlining their offense.
Chris Kreider was a goal scoring machine in his career year, and Mika Zibanejad, who tends to be more of a shooter, was a dual-threat. One of his best weapons, a right-handed shot from the left circle, wasn’t as effective against right-catching Louis Domingue to open the series, and there were some legitimate concerns below the surface as well.
As much as the Rangers claimed to not play the matchup game, they did exactly that matching this line — Kreider, Zibanejad, and Frank Vatrano — against Crosby’s line. In almost 60 minutes of matchup time between Guentzel and Zibanejad, the Rangers only mustered 26.7 percent of the expected goals share, and were outscored 5-3. It wasn’t until Game 6 that the Kreider and Zibanejad duo showed more spark — in fact, their impacts on the scoresheet came with tweaks to that line, whether it was Tyler Motte in Game 6 or Andrew Copp in 7.
The Hurricanes are a completely different team from Pittsburgh, but that’s going to be something to watch: if the Rangers’ top two forwards gets buried in their own zone, will adjustments come sooner than the final minutes of a potential elimination game for defensive support? Or will Kreider and Zibanejad be the drivers when they’re on the ice, even if it’s against top competition like they’re accustomed to?
What makes the Rangers dangerous is that they’re able to split their best players between two combinations to give them a good one-two punch in the top six. With Artemi Panarin technically on the second line, it’s Zibanejad and Kreider on their first line.
Panarin projects to be the most valuable skater in this entire matchup at 3.7 wins, but his postseason performance hasn’t quite lived up to that. This isn’t a matter of a player not rising to the occasion in the playoffs — just look at how he performed in Columbus. Maybe there’s a lingering injury impeding his play, he did miss the last couple of regular season games, after all.
But when it all came down to it, Panarin was the difference-maker the Rangers needed with the series-clinching goal in overtime. That’s the thing about elite players — even when they’re not at their best, they can completely change the game in a matter of seconds. That’s something that’s been true for Panarin throughout the season, even when his play wasn’t at his usual elite levels below the surface, he still made an impact on the scoresheet. It was just before the trade deadline that everything truly turned around, with him playing some of his best hockey of the season. And that’s the level New York has to hope for this round.
Alongside Panarin there’s Ryan Strome, his mainstay center through much of his tenure in New York, and Andrew Copp who’s been a key addition in all situations. That combination actually has the best underlying numbers of the Rangers’ primary combinations, but that’s not saying much. They outscored opponents with 59 percent of the goals at five-on-five, but fell below break-even in shots and even lower in expected goals. But if Panarin hits his stride, it’s a different story.
The Hurricanes have star power to match up front, but like the Boston matchup it’s a little lacking in comparison. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov stack up well against Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider in terms of total value — but there isn’t really an answer for Panarin on the second line.
Aho and Svechnikov were Carolina’s strongest forwards at driving play in the opening round with the duo earning 55 percent of the expected goals or close to it. Still, we might need some more scoring from each as Aho had just five points for the series and Svechnikov had four. Both are capable of more and the opponent factor likely plays a role there. Every away game in Boston meant a matchup against Patrice Bergeron, a matchup Aho really struggled with. That won’t be a problem here against New York and the top line should be able to command the series more as a result. The big Seth Jarvis breakout that was on display in Round 1 helps a lot in that regard. He had five points of his own and really adds to Carolina’s arsenal.
The Hurricanes will likely need to rely on their depth to take over this series as that’s where they hold the biggest edge over the Rangers. That mostly comes from a balanced middle six – two lines with equal value and differing utility. New York can match up well with one of those lines thanks to Panarin, but not both as the team’s depth after the top six is seriously lacking.
The second line is the scoring line, one that should help alleviate some of the offensive pressure that Aho faces on the top line. The third line is the checking line, one that should help alleviate some of the defensive responsibility that Aho faces on the top line. Perfectly balanced.
Both lines had moments against Boston, but on the whole were out-chanced for the entire series. That can’t happen here against the Rangers because Carolina’s advantage will depend on putting more dangerous pucks on Shesterkin than the Rangers manage the other way.
Vincent Trocheck and Teuvo Teravainen were very productive with seven points each against the Bruins. But while his line outscored the competition 6-0, the underlying process was a little flawed with an ugly 35 percent expected goals rate. As for Jordan Staal’s line, they were a little better at 43 percent, but that’s not good enough for a shutdown line. Against New York, he and his wingers will need to do a better job of controlling the run of play.
It’ll be interesting to see what role Max Domi plays in all of this and if he sees an elevated role. He had a pretty decent series that was capped off by an excellent showing in Game 7. Domi had five points in the series and could slot into the top nine in a pinch — but is also a nice asset on the fourth line. Carolina has a lot of options in terms of finding the right mix and regardless of what the team decides, it’ll be very tough to handle for the Rangers.
While Carolina has options up and down their lineup, the Rangers don’t have as many — at least, no ones the coaches are as willing to try. They’ve been stringent in a lot of their combinations with some questionable deployment along the way.
The “Kid Line” of Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko added some pop in Round 1 when the team needed it by creating some sustained pressure in the offensive zone. But this combination isn’t exactly trusted like their top-six players, or even the fourth line at times.
On the fourth line, Barclay Goodrow is sidelined with injury at least to start Round 2. While he doesn’t have as much offensive upside, he’s trusted to absorb tough minutes, is strong defensively, and adds more versatility in his ability to play center and wing. Tyler Motte’s return from injury helped mitigate that loss after the team deployed 11 forwards and seven defenders. The speedy winger can transition the puck up the ice and disrupt opponents at even strength and on the penalty kill. But there’s limited upside on the fourth line beside him. That stunts the matchup game against a deeper lineup, because there are only so many players available on the fourth line who can really handle the puck.
The Bottom Line
The Rangers got this far thanks mostly to the Igor Shesterkin show. There were those hoping that wouldn’t be the case, encouraged that the rest of the team would give more support to the netminder after a strong post-deadline showing. But that didn’t play out in the opening round. It worked well enough to win against a hobbled Penguins team, but it’ll be difficult to win another round employing that same strategy. There needs to be more from the rest of the team.
That’ll be very difficult against a deep and poised Hurricanes team that looks ready to take the next step. Carolina is a team built to win with very few holes and will likely control this series similarly to the way the Penguins handled the Rangers last series. That means more chances to score and a better chance to win every night. It’s no guarantee, not with Shesterkin on the other side, but the odds are in Carolina’s favor for a reason. The Rangers roster outside the crease still has a lot to prove.
(Photo: Jared Silber / NHLI via Getty Images)