Congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes: you’ve qualified for the postseason. As your reward, you get a five-game series against a team that’s absolutely owned you the past decade, led by a goalie who can do no wrong against you. Have fun!
Last season, the Hurricanes rode a goaltending platoon to the conference final. They have a very similar setup this season, with the constant between the two seasons - Petr Mrazek - slightly less effective this year, although far from ineffective. Both Mrazek and James Reimer have performed at league average or higher, and when the Hurricanes boast such a potent advantage on defense, that should be enough, right?
Well...it just so happens that they are running into the one team in the East that can roll out an embarrassment of riches in the goal crease, because of course we can’t have nice things around here.
This has been far from Henrik Lundqvist’s finest season. It’s been a slow but continual decline from the peak of his career, back when he was winning the Vezina Trophy and being named a postseason All-Star in the early 2010s. Yet if all you’ve watched of the King this season was his three starts against Carolina, you’re forgiven for thinking that he was a decade younger and still at the height of his abilities.
Lundqvist is 33-12-1 all-time against Carolina, with a .934 save percentage. This season, the Hurricanes took 132 shots in three games against Lundqvist and went 0-3, scoring a grand total of seven goals. The Hurricanes have taken at least 30 shots against Lundqvist 22 times in his career, and they have lost 18 of those games. He’s in the pantheon of all-time Hurricanes killers alongside the likes of Olli Jokinen, Martin St. Louis and his teammate Mika Zibanejad.
And yet, he isn’t even likely to be the Rangers’ starting goaltender, because someone else has outplayed him.
Igor Shesterkin faced the Hurricanes once this season, and picked up right where Lundqvist left off: making 27 saves in a 5-2 Rangers win at PNC Arena on February 20. But Shesterkin, since he was called up on January 6, hasn’t just done that against the Hurricanes, as was the case with Lundqvist: he was merely one of the hottest goalies in hockey for the two months leading up to the season pause.
That win over the Hurricanes was the seventh in an eight-game personal winning streak for Shesterkin that lasted more than a month. He has a save percentage of at least .900 in every game he’s played but one. He’s 10-2 in his NHL career. The starter’s role is his to lose going into the playoffs.
And not only that, but Shesterkin is a very adept puck-handler, which serves to negate the advantage the Hurricanes’ aggressive forecheck typically holds over the opposition. In a great breakdown that we featured on Storm Advisory last week, Blueshirt Banter’s Adam Herman explained:
Igor Shesterkin is one of the best puckhandling goaltenders the NHL has seen in a long time. If he is indeed the Rangers’ starter against Carolina, it could give the Rangers a huge advantage. Especially with an arsenal of breakout and transition weapons.
That’s a skill set that neither Mrazek nor Reimer have in their pockets. What’s worse, the Hurricanes have struggled defending teams that come into the zone on the rush. And guess what the Rangers do? According to Charting Hockey, they play at one of the highest paces in the league.
So the Rangers have the luxury of rolling out a goalie who has done no wrong in his first two months in the league, and if that doesn’t work, their backup plan (!) is only the most successful goalie not named Patrick Roy to ever face the Hurricanes franchise. Small wonder the Hurricanes had no interest in the return to play format.
To win this series, the Hurricanes will need Mrazek, and to a lesser extent Reimer, to at least keep pace with whoever the Rangers send out in net. Reimer has had slightly better numbers this season, with a GSAA at 5-on-5 just under 1 according to Natural Stat Trick. Mrazek has been solid against high-danger shots, not so much against lower-percentage shots.
Rod Brind’Amour knows that time is of the essence in a five-game series, and he’s mentally preparing for just about anything. “I’ll be shocked if we get through all this and there’s not a curveball thrown at us,” he told the media on a Zoom call last week. “I think the theme of the day is just going to be adapting, improvising and then overcoming whatever comes our way.”
Either way, goaltending is the one area of this series where the Hurricanes are at a decided disadvantage. The Hurricanes’ scoring prowess is much improved over previous years, and the Rangers defense is not their strongest attribute. But Carolina has no one like Artemi Panarin, who led the Rangers with nine points in their four games against the Hurricanes this season. No matter who’s in goal for the Hurricanes, they’ll need that player to be at his best to shut down one of the league’s top talents.
If the Hurricanes are going to advance, the formula is straightforward: put pucks into the net, and hang on for dear life at the other end.