As the Hurricanes continue to prepare for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the New York Rangers, no area should take on greater focus than locking down the Rangers’ high-flying forward group.
Led by the likes of Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin and leading goal scorer Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers’ forward group was the biggest reason the team found itself on the fringes of the playoff hunt when the NHL hit pause due to COVID-19, and that New York drew the 11-seed to face the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Qualifiers.
The Rangers finished fifth in the league in both total goals (233) and goals per game (3.33) in 70 games this season. That Rangers’ offense is also one of the biggest reasons (along with their goaltending) the Blueshirts swept the season series with the Hurricanes, as they outscored Carolina 17-9 (4.25 Rangers goals per game).
Aside from maybe the goaltending battle (which Brian will break down on Friday), the Canes limiting the damage Panarin, Zibanejad and friends do will likely be the determining factor in this series.
Fortunately, they have a blue line that should be up to the task. You might have heard a thing or two about this, but the Canes have a deep, talented D corps, with eight legitimate NHL defensemen to choose from going into this series. Though this is a series where stalwart Brett Pesce will be sorely missed, those eight all bring something to the table.
“It’s certainly our strength,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “You can’t have enough good D, so I think we’re lucky in that regard. I think, like you mentioned, the Rangers have a very good offense. You’re going to have to defend, there’s just no way around it. So we’ve got to do a better job with those guys. You mentioned two of the top, premier offensive players [Zibanejad and Panarin]. We’ll definitely be keying on them. Our defense is going to have to drive the boat. There’s no way around that.”
I went in-depth on the Hurricanes’ defensemen and their various merits last week.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the Rangers’ likely lines going into game one, and the Hurricanes’ best options for matching up.
Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich
Before we start, one thing that jumps out with this top line is obviously the absence of Panarin. I’ll get to this more below, but a big part of what makes the Rangers so tricky to defend is that ability to separate their top two players.
While Panarin grabs most of the accolades for this Rangers team, Zibanejad had an incredible season as well. Despite missing time with a shoulder injury suffered in October, the Rangers’ top-line pivot finished fifth in the league with 41 goals in just 57 games, adding 34 assists for 75 points. That’s an 82-game pace of 59 goals and 108 points. In his final two games of the season, he posted 23 goals and 36 points. Goodness.
Zibanejad absolutely killed the Hurricanes, too. His speed and skill gave the team fits, as he posted four goals and seven points despite only playing in three of the four games. Interestingly, three of his goals against the Canes came on the power play (stay out of the box, maybe?).
Turning a puck over to him at the offensive blue line for a breakaway is also not a strategy I’d recommend.
It’s not as if Zibanejad is carrying this line on his own, however. In his fourth season in the NHL, Buchnevich set a career high in points with 46 in just 68 games, and chipped in 16 goals. Buchnevich chipped in two assists against the Hurricanes this season, and while he’s not on the same level as Panarin and Zibanejad, his speed and skill will also make him a going concern.
And, of course, the Canes are more than familiar with Kreider. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound winger’s blend of size, speed and finishing ability make him a dangerous power forward in the NHL. He was also an issue in the season series with a goal and an assist, and has been a thorn in their side his whole career, with 11 goals and 19 points in 27 games.
Here’s a look at the kind of damage Zibanejad and Kreider can do together:
All in all, this line has all the makings of a deadly top trio, and that’s exactly what it is. The Ranger’s top line is a candidate to see a heavy dose of the Canes’ top pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton.
Those two, despite playing over 23 minutes per game against top players the likes of this line, were among the top five in the NHL in +/- with each at +30. Slavin’s 81 takeaways should also help out here in getting the puck away from this dangerous trio.
What’s probably most important, however, is that both Slavin and Hamilton were elite possession players, with an average Corsi-for rating of 56.7. The best way to defend a line like Zibanjead’s is to simply keep the puck away from them, and Slavin and Hamilton should be ideally suited to do that.
Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Jesper Fast
And herein lies the crux of the issue. If the Rangers played Zibanejad and Panarin together, they would be a bear to stop, but the Canes could roll the Slavin pairing and Jordan Staal’s line against them and probably feel pretty good about it.
It’s Panarin and Zibanejad’s ability to produce while separated that makes this lineup so deadly. Simply because of the way he’s elevated his teammates play and done more with less, Panarin is my pick for the Hart Trophy.
Panarin, who finished fourth in the league with 95 points, along with Zibanejad, really carried the Rangers this season. After Zibanejad at 75 points, the next closest forward on the team was Strome with 59.
If you’re going to give the Hart Trophy to the most valuable player to his team, Panarin is the easy choice.
But back to the task at hand, much like Zibanejad, Panarin was a nightmare for the Canes to defend this season. “The Bread Man” was even more deadly than his counterpart, with three goals and nine points against Carolina.
It’s a tall task to truly stop Panarin, your best hope is to simply contain him. A good start towards doing so would be not doing .... whatever this is:
Strome was a definite beneficiary of Panarin’s superb play this season, with 18 goals and a career-high 59 points. Unsurprisingly given his pairing with Panarin, Strome was a point per game player against the Hurricanes this season with two goals and four points.
Fast is definitely the “one of these things is not like the others” player of the Rangers’ top six with 12 goals and 29 points in 69 games (seriously, give Panarin the Hart), but his speed still makes him a concern, especially if defenders are preoccupied with Panarin and Strome.
And therein lies the conundrum. Do you play Slavin-Hamilton against the Rangers’ best overall line, or their best player in Panarin? It’s a difficult question to answer.
The Canes are going to have to get somewhat creative against whichever line sees less of its top pair. While the blue line runs eight deep, without Pesce, Slavin and Hamilton are the only players you can feel great about using against these high-end forwards. The team’s most common second pairing in camp has been Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. That pair should be able to move the puck and make things happen in the offensive zone, but playing them against the likes of these forwards? Yikes.
The solution I’d go with would be to use Slavin and Hamilton against one of these top two lines, while lining up Jordan Staal’s line, with Justin Williams and either Brock McGinn or Warren Foegle against the other. Staal is used to being tasked with shutting down the opposition’s best players, and, with a +3 rating and 54.1% Corsi-for percentage in 17:30 per game, he should be up to the task.
I’d actually pair the Staal line with Haydn Fleury’s pairing against one of these lines. I’m on record as saying Fleury should play, and he was playing some of his best hockey down the stretch of the regular season. He could be up to the task against one of these lines, especially with the Staal line helping him out. While, with the minutes they’re likely to play, Slavin/Hamilton will likely see time against both groups, they can’t play 40 minutes per game, and a combo of the Staal line and Fleury is a good backup.
Phil Di Giuseppe-Filip Chytil Kaapo Kakko
Things drop off in a hurry for the Rangers after their top six. This line features Di Giuseppe, the first of a few old friends for the Hurricanes here. Chytil posted 14 goals and 23 points, Kakko 10 and 23, and PDG put up just one goal and four points in 20 games.
While the bottom six is often relied on for more than just scoring, you ideally want to see more than just this. Kakko should have an extremely bright future ahead as the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft brings a wealth of talent, but it’s tough to tell what he’ll do in his first postseason action.
It’s probably safe to use Skjei and Vatanen against this group, and let them go to work in the offensive zone.
It should be noted that Brendan Lemieux (six goals, 18 points) has been suspended for the first two games of the series, but will likely draw in here after that ends, possibly in place of Di Giuseppe.
Greg McKegg-Brett Howden-Julien Gauthier
TWO old friends on this line. This trio obviously doesn’t bring a ton of scoring ability, with McKegg at five goals and nine points in 53 games, Gauthier at two assists in 12 games and Howden at nine goals and 19 points.
That doesn’t mean they should be discounted, however. Gauthier was a victim of the numbers game for the Canes, but his size and power game that made him a first rounder in 2016 are still there. And Canes fans know that McKegg is good for a timely goal; he scored the series clincher against the Islanders last year.
When it comes to squaring off with New York’s forwards, limiting the damage done by the top six led by Zibanejad and Panarin is going to be critical. That group terrorized the Canes in the regular-season series, and that simply can’t continue.
But, if the Canes’ defenders can do a better job against that group, a series victory should be very much in the cards. If the Canes can at least limit Panarin, Zibanejad and co. to the point where its own top six including Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Tervainen, Vincent Trocheck, Martin Necas and Nino Niederreiter/Ryan Dzingel can at least match them, the battle goes to the bottom six.
And the Canes are a much deeper team than the Rangers. Their bottom six that includes Staal, Williams, Foegele, Mcginn, Martinook and either Morgan Geekie or whichever of Niederreiter or Dzingel doesn’t crack the top six has a lot more to offer than the Rangers.
While it will be a tall task, containing the Rangers’ stars could very well allow depth to win the day for the Hurricanes.