On one bench will be Rod Brind’Amour, a noted franchise legend in Carolina whose heroic entrance as head coach during the 2018 offseason helped kickstart the comeback story of the Hurricanes and led to the team’s first playoff berth in a decade.
On the other bench will be David Quinn, the second-year Rangers bench boss who experienced a wealth of success with Boston University in the NCAA. Quinn’s final act at BU in 2018 came with a Hockey East title. Three years prior, he was named the Hockey East coach of the year.
This isn’t Quinn’s first rodeo in professional hockey as a coach. He leaped from BU’s associate head coach to AHL head coach with the Lake Erie Monsters in 2009 before getting called up to the Colorado Avalanche bench as an assistant in 2013 and ultimately heading back to BU upon the conclusion of the season to reclaim his job as head coach.
If the early results are any indication, Quinn’s second NHL stint will be a marked improvement over his first time around.
From year one to year two, Quinn saw his Rangers improve by five wins in 12 fewer games, due to the season’s suspension. Like in 2018-19, New York still finished in seventh place in the division, though, despite the big jump. They jumped from 2.7 goals for per game to 3.32 in 2019-20, one of the largest jumps in the NHL from one year to the next.
Another important stat comes with their goaltending. A season ago, their .904 save percentage was a tick below average. That number rang in at an above-average .908 this year. Those few saves end up playing a big role in the long run, especially when they’re behind a defense like the Rangers’.
Where Quinn and the Rangers fall apart is their defense. They are among the worst teams in the league in limiting shots and limiting high-danger shots. They consistently get hammered in the possession game, and the same can be said about their generation of scoring chances.
Where they thrive is in their transition game. Quinn encourages his players to push the tempo up ice, which often overwhelms opposing defenses. They have some strong team speed and the skill to back it up.
Of course, when you think of the Rangers and their speed, you start thinking about Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. They have a top-heavy forward core, but Quinn usually separates the two stars to help spread out the offense. That creates a problem for Brind’Amour in deciding the matchups. Will Jordan Staal’s line be given Panarin, Zibanejad, or a combination of both? The answer is probably a combination of both.
New York’s blue line is a special challenge, as well. Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo are gifted offensive defensemen who play a real role in generating that transition offense with their great breakout and stretch passes. They have skillsets that resemble fourth forwards in the offensive zone.
The matchup game will be a very important one to watch. In a neutral site with no fans in attendance, the Hurricanes don’t have “home-ice” advantage, but they do have the “home-team” advantage in that they’ll get the last change in games one and two (and five, if needed). That should be a very valuable weapon in Brind’Amour’s tool belt.
That will be even more-so the case if Dougie Hamilton is healthy enough to play in game one or two. Having him with Jaccob Slavin on the top pairing would be huge in hopes of combating the speed that the Rangers possess.
We know the track record for Brind’Amour through two seasons. He’s had the most successful early run of any coach in the history of the franchise, and he’s led the Canes into their second straight postseason. He was never afraid of the moment as a player, and he certainly isn’t afraid of it now. He has the playoff experience that Quinn frankly doesn’t have at the NHL level, but Quinn’s storied NCAA career is proof in itself that he’s more than capable of leading a team deep into a postseason.
Of all the matchups in this play-in round, perhaps the coaching matchup is among the most interesting.