When last year’s playoffs ended, the notion that the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers would be facing off in the 2020 postseason would have been almost as unfathomable as the idea of that series taking place in August. The Canes had finally capitalized on their longtime analytical dominance, continuing their apparent “all-or-nothing” approach to the playoffs - the team has qualified only four times in the past seventeen years but has made the Conference Finals each time. Meanwhile, the Rangers were slogging through an openly declared rebuild with only dreams of surefire Calder contender Kappo Kakko to keep them optimistic about the future.
A year and change later, Carolina is trying to qualify for the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2002, and the Rangers hope to defy their ugly underlying numbers and ride a Hart Trophy-contending superstar and a few superb rookies (Kakko not included) to glory. In this piece I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck. You can also read my previous previews of EDM-CHI, PIT-MTL, and NSH-AZ.
The Hurricanes weren’t as dominant a possession team as usual this season, but they were still in the top tier of the league in terms of xGF%. Their possession game did decline in early 2020 (uncoincidentally when Dougie Hamilton broke his leg), but seemed to be improving again when the hiatus hit. They got poor puck luck early on, but for the rest of the season their results were about in line with expectations. The Rangers were a totally different story; they were well below break-even possession-wise in 2019, buoyed by good fortune which kept their GF% well above expected in four out of the six months of the season, but improved as the season wore on. But overall this isn’t really close. The Rangers were 4th-worst in the league both in terms of overall possession and games in which they were outplayed, while the Hurricanes were top ten in both categories. Winner: Carolina
This is what it looks like when one team can get the puck in the net and the other can’t. The Hurricanes were a much better expected goal team, finishing 2nd best in that category and only dropping anywhere near leage average in March. The Rangers, on the other hand, hovered right around mediocrity save for a nice February boost. The difference is the actual finishing ability/luck. The Canes scored well below expected for the vast majority of the season until exploding in February and March. Once again in constrast, the Rangers outscored their expected goals all season until March, finishing 9th in both goals and expected goals for and 12th in shooting above expected. This is a tricky one to decide, because the Canes are much better at generating quality scoring chances, and the Rangers might be primed to regress - however, Carolina’s perpetual inability to score up to expectation makes me lean towards New York here. Winner: New York
This one’s a blowout. The Canes were by no means great defensively this year, finishing 21st in quality chance prevention, 18th in goals against, and outside of the top ten in terms of goaltending. But the Rangers were arguably the worst defensive team in the league, with only goaltending keeping them out of the basement. Things improved for New York as time went on, and they ended the season about average; meanwhile the Canes’ goaltending fluctuated even more wildly than their team defence. Nonetheness, this is pretty decisive. Winner: Carolina
In the playoffs, where the best teams are able to prey on soft matchups and control play when their best players aren’t on the ice, depth matters. One team here has it, and the other has maybe the least of any of the 24 participating teams.
The top six is a major advantage for the Rangers. The top lines are mostly a wash, with the balanced strength of the Hurricanes’ stars facing off against Artemi Panarin The Line. The Rangers’ star left wing is by far the best forward on either team, and demonstrated the ability to drag his two inferior linemates to top-line performance. That’s not the case on the second line, where New York possesses an overwhelming advantage thanks to Kreider and Buchnevich’s playdriving ability and Zibanejad’s offence and scoring.
The Ranger’s moderate edge at the top of the lineup is completely undone by one of the league’s worst bottom sixes, headlined by worst rookie of the year Kappo Kakko and a complement of AHL-level players. The third line in particular is an absolute liability, projected as literally the worst line in the NHL by WAR. The bottom trio is better but not by much. In contrast the Hurricanes can boast a dominant puck possession unit run by play-driving stalwart Jordan Staal and the still-effective Justin Williams. The bottom line is nothing special, but beats its counterpart by virtue of being NHL-calibre. Winner: Carolina
Here’s an interesting one; the Hurricanes have a comprehensive advantage on their 1st and 3rd pairings while the Rangers have the same on their 2nd pair. Slavin - Hamilton is one of the league’s best pairings, and the Hurricanes will benefit greatly from the return of one of the most enigmatic and divisive elite star defencemen in the league. This duo perfectly combines Dougie Hamilton’s overwhelming offensive ability and willingness to shoot the puck with Jaccob Slavin’s defensive conscience, gap control, and stick checking to tilt the ice in Carolina’s favour. On the contrary, Jacob Trouba had an abysmal season in his first year as the Rangers’ #1 defenceman, and Brendan Smith is well below-replacement level. However, New York’s second pair is far better than Carolina’s thanks to sensational rookie (and former Hurricanes prospect) Adam Fox, whose two-way game is already ahead of most of the league. Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen might have made an excellent pairing in 2016, but the Rangers are well aware of how their former blueliner has fallen off in recent years. The potential loss of Brett Pesce, who’s been one of the top defensive defencemen in the league over the past three seasons, to injury could be decisive. Finally, Tony DeAngelo is better than Jake Gardiner (who was more unlucky than bad this season), but Marc Staal is even worse than Joel Edmundson; the total WAR projection comes out about even but evidently the Canes’ pair is just a little better across the board. Winner: Carolina
This is a tough matchup to handicap. In Igor Shesterkin’s 12-game rookie “season,” he was extremely impressive, ranking fourth in save percentage above expected at 5v5 and in all situations. After a difficult first four games he was a positive factor in seven of eight, in some cases absolutely stealing wins for his team. He’s a high-profile prospect with a strong KHL track record, but we don’t have a significant sample size for him. The Rangers could also elect to go with Alexandar Georgiev, who was an average starter this season, or give Henrik Lundqvist one last go-round. Petr Mrazek, on the other hand, profiles as a below-average starting goalie this year. He struggled quite a bit in the playoffs last year, and his poor rebound control is an issue. He was relatively stable this season in terms of performance, with no super hot or cold stretches. Statistically New York has the edge here, but with goaltending you never really know. Verdict: New York
As with all of these five-game play-in series, there is absolutely a conceivable path for both teams to win. For the Rangers, it’s Artemi Panarin singlehandedly barreling over the Hurricanes’ first line, Mika Zibanejad continuing his absurd productivity, Adam Fox forcing Calder voters to second-guess themselves, and one of those three goalies stealing a few games. For the Hurricanes, it’s dominating possession against one of the worst defensive teams in the league, exploiting New York’s AHL-calibre bottom six, and neutralizing the Rangers’ best players with arguably the league’s best pairing. I doubt that Carolina will “regress upward” to their expected goal numbers (it’s simply impossible with Jordan Staal in your lineup), but it’s very conceivable and maybe even probable that the percentage luck could come crashing down on the Rangers. New York will probably be a contender soon, but they’re not there yet. Prediction: Hurricanes in 4.