Despite all the pre-assumed worries that the Hurricanes were going to struggle against the New York Rangers whether it was due to the regular season series record, the historic struggles, Artemi Panarin being a Hart Trophy finalist, Mika Zibanejad scoring in nearly every game he’s played against Carolina or the tandem of Henrik Lundqvist having virtually never lost to the Canes and Igor Shesterkin being the heir apparent and next likely superstar goaltender, there really was nothing to worry about.
I mean, the Hurricanes swept the Rangers in three straight games, outscoring their opponent by a grand total of 11-4. They were only ever losing in the series once, in Game 3, in the second period, for three minutes and six seconds. By all means, the Canes thoroughly handled their opponent and it wasn’t even close and here’s why.
Relentless and Oppressive Hockey
Before you complain again about Jordan Staal’s contract after he gets a breakaway and shoots it high or into the goalie’s crest, remember what his actual team role is. Staal is “the” go-to guy for defensive-zone draws, penalty kills and matching up against opposing top lines.
When you need a line to be suppressed, you put Staal out there on them, and that’s exactly what happened to Zibanejad and Panarin in this series.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Canes’ captain led all skaters in 5v5 and 4v5 ice-time through the entire series while still maintaining a positive Corsi for percentage matched against the Rangers’ best players.
Not only his line with Warren Foegele and Justin Williams, but every single one of the Hurricanes’ lines plays the exact same dig in and go to work game that just suffocates and tires their opponents.
Carolina’s fourth line was arguably one of the biggest difference makers in the series. Jordan Martinook and Brock McGinn being centered by Morgan Geekie proved to be just as relentless and high-energy as the line was last year with Lucas Wallmark.
The line had a Corsi-for percentage of 66.67% for the entire series, outchancing opponents 24 to 12 and even notched themselves a goal in Game 2 and heavily contributed to the Hurricanes’ first goal in Game 3.
While the second line of Vincent Trocheck, Martin Necas and Nino Niederreiter didn’t really make its way onto the score sheet outside of a Necas’ goal (courtesy of Marc Staal’s foot), the line played a similar role in the high-energy, wear them down style. Trocheck is another two-way forward who is key to have as a righty for faceoffs.
Martin Necas rifles a one-timer off of Marc Staal and into the net. Necas scores his first NHL playoff goal in his first NHL playoff game. The Hurricanes are up 3-1 in the third period over the Rangers. pic.twitter.com/esAcwfyNmL— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 1, 2020
Why did the Canes find so much success at every line?
The simple answer for that is that the Hurricanes are just so much deeper than the Rangers were. Having four legitimate lines that play the exact same game works so much into Carolina’s favor. Couple that with the amazing conditioning we all know the team is in and they’ll run literally any opponent through the ice.
The team is also just so disciplined in its “game,” that being the immense forechecking pressure that the Hurricanes employ in not only their forward lines but also with the nearly limitless opportunity for the defensemen to activate.
This is also why the Canes’ penalty kill was lights out. In 14 power-play opportunities, the Rangers scored only one goal on a 5-on-3 sequence in which Mrazek nearly stopped, getting just a piece of the puck with his glove. A stark contrast to the 33% success rate it had in the regular season series.
The Hurricanes are just such a force on the puck that it forces opponents to rush plays. This inevitably leads to breakdowns and turnovers, therefore then the Canes’ possession.
On the New York side of things, Panarin and Zibanejad were both virtually shut down.
Each notched a single goal and neither of them was that impressive. Zibanejad scored by tipping a point shot in Game 1 and Panarin scored on a 5-on-3 power play opportunity in Game 2. Both also managed an assist on the Game 1 shorthanded goal by Marc Staal.
In this series, they were irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes’ star power was blindingly radiant.
While he shined the least among the top line, Teravainen had a quietly successful series, notching a goal and an assist, with both in big moments. His assist was a perfect cross-ice feed to a streaking Jaccob Slavin for the first goal of the series and his goal tied up Game 3 for the Canes.
Teuvo Teravainen with a perfect pass to Jaccob Slavin, and Slavin roofs it on Henrik Lundqvist. 61 seconds into game one, the Hurricanes are up 1-0 on the Rangers. pic.twitter.com/gyqTz3NI4m— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 1, 2020
Outside of the stat sheet, he was responsible in his own end, physical when he had to be and helped to generate offense.
Next up was Andrei Svechnikov who, by all means you’d have thought was the most dominant player for the Canes with a hat-trick in Game 2, the first postseason hatty in franchise history, and five total points, but it gets even better, just wait. But for now, let’s keep the focus on Svech.
Svechnikov is quickly becoming an elite player if he is not already. I don’t know, there is no criteria to reach or medal to earn for being elite, but what else do you say about him?
He is 20 years old and not only is he an offensive threat with an insane shot, but he has also developed great vision as a playmaker (you see that slap pass in Game 1?), and he is just so physical.
Gorgeous power play puck movement. Sami Vatanen feeds Andrei Svechnikov, who puts it right on the tape of Sebastian Aho in the slot. Aho gives the Hurricanes a 2-0 second-period lead on the Rangers in game one. Vatanen's first point as a Cane. pic.twitter.com/eCK4PF1E69— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 1, 2020
Svechnikov isn’t afraid to body grown men along the boards and it shows on the stat sheet, where he led all Hurricanes’ skaters in hits every single game of the series.
He has the ability to take over games and shows up in big moments. He never quits, isn’t afraid of anything and just finds a way to win. To me, he’s elite and still has room to grow.
Now how do you follow that up? Simple. By talking about the performance of the already undisputed elite Finnish center in Sebastian Aho, who now has 20 playoff points after three straight multi-point games.
In fact, as of the end of Game 3, Aho is now tied for the lead in playoff points among the 2015 NHL draft class with Timo Meier.
Oh yeah, and also having played in 17 fewer games. So there’s that.
While Svechnikov’s hat-trick was impressive, who do you think was setting all of those plays up?
Goal 1: Aho enters the zone, tries to pass across to Svech, gets the puck blocked, manages to recollect it while it’s bobbling and puts it right back onto Svechnikov’s tape.
Andrei Svechnikov opens the scoring in game two. He rips a shot under the arm of Henrik Lundqvist and the Hurricanes have a 1-0 lead over the Rangers in game two. pic.twitter.com/cbtDYulKL1— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 3, 2020
Goal 2: Aho wins the faceoff draw straight back to Vatanen who puts it on a platter for Svechnikov to rip it.
Andrei Svechnikov winds it up and fires it over the shoulder of Henrik Lundqvist. His second goal of the game gives the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead over the Rangers in game two. Sami Vatanen and Sebastian Aho with the assists. pic.twitter.com/K3CI3EDFnK— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 3, 2020
Goal 3: Aho steals the puck at the blueline, races down the ice, outwaits the defender and no-look puts it past the defensemen and right to Svechnikov.
Sebastian Aho made it happen. He stole the puck, drew the defender, and then slid a pass right on the tape of Andrei Svechnikov. Svech has a hat trick, Aho has a 3-assist game. pic.twitter.com/DL4g1PQCrd— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 3, 2020
Now how about Aho’s scoring ability?
Did you see him strip Jacob Trouba and then, not satisfied with one victim, undress Tony DeAngelo before going bar down off his backhand?
Sebastian Aho. WOOOOW. Enjoy every angle of this highlight-reel goal from Aho, who strips the puck from Trouba and walks DeAngelo for a goal that puts the Hurricanes up 3-1 on the Rangers in game three. pic.twitter.com/YfGH9VeYVm— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 5, 2020
That, along with his penalty killing abilities that Rod Brind’Amour has helped develop, makes Aho one of the premier players in the NHL, capable of playing in any situation and being a true number one centerman.
The Defense Meshed
What if I told you that two of the three pairs that the Hurricanes iced for the qualifying round had never seen game action before and that the third had only 163 total minutes together (according to MoneyPuck.com). Not what one expects heading into the playoffs, but pretty reasonable when you consider that two players came over at the trade deadline with only one of them having suited up for the team before Game 1.
Now does it seem reasonable that these pairs managed to thwart a fast and potent offensive team like the Rangers? It really doesn’t seem like it should add up, especially when you consider that the team was missing their second best defensive defenseman (Brett Pesce) and their hands down, by a mile, Norris-caliber offensive defenseman (Dougie Hamilton).
But that’s exactly what they did. It helps when your corp is led by Slavin, but the whole defensive group really stepped up their games. Most notably, Jake Gardiner and Haydn Fleury took it to another level. Both eased into their role, Fleury a bit faster, but still both worked together and looked very comfortable.
The new guys, Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen, also had quite the showing. Skjei looks like such a composed skater with a lot of potential, not to mention him setting up the series-clinching goal with the point shot for the Foegele tip.
Vatanen had a bit of a slow down in Game 3, but his offensive ability seems to be legit, with three assists in three games. The Canes sure won’t mind giving up that third-round pick to New Jersey so long as Vatanen can continue to help the team progress through the playoffs.
Joel Edmundson hadn’t impressed, but he had also not been a liability. I mean, the Rangers hardly scored so what is there to be mad about? His experience and physicality I’m sure will be leaned on down the road as the team now enters the “real” playoffs.
In stark contrast, the New York Rangers’ defense was a mess.
The Blueshirts have a mix of young mobile defensemen and slower stay at home defensemen that all seem to be misused in their current system.
They were constantly hemmed into their own zone and failed to effectively move the puck, a product of the Canes’ forechecking. This left their goaltenders with much too large a taskload.
The biggest boost the Rangers were touting heading into the series was goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist started the first two games, allowing seven goals on 71 shots. Petr Mrazek started the first two games for the Hurricanes and allowed three goals on 50 shots.
In game three it was Igor Shesterkin versus James Reimer. Shesterkin allowed three goals on 30 shots (he wasn’t in net for the empty-net goal) while Reimer saw only a single shot get past him, turning aside 37 more.
When it came down to it, Mrazek and Reimer made the big, showstopping, series-saving saves when they needed to, and they sure as hell weren’t giving up any softies either.
This isn’t to say that Lundqvist and Shesterkin gave up soft goals, although I’m sure Lundqvist would have liked goals one and two from Game 2 back and I’m sure Shesterkin wasn’t happy with the first goal, but at the end of the day, Carolina’s netminders were the ones who made the saves you didn’t expect them to have been able to make.
Wow. Petr Mrazek with a spectacular save on Brett Howden. He keeps this game at 1-0 in the first period. pic.twitter.com/nbe45EI11R— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 3, 2020
WOW. James Reimer and company with an unbelievable sequence to keep the Rangers off the board. Sami Vatanen made a save too, Reimer made the unbelievable stick stop at the end. Unreal. pic.twitter.com/XouM1gotrC— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) August 5, 2020
As everyone had discussed heading into the series, it came down to goaltending, but it wasn’t quite what they had in mind.