By Shayna Goldman, Sean Gentille and Dom Luszczyszyn

Let’s face it: The New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes got through Round 1 with some ease — in four and five games, respectively.

But Round 2? That’s a different story.

It’s a battle of two in the best of the East, vying for Metropolitan supremacy.

It’s a matchup between two of the best defenders in the league, Adam Fox and Jaccob Slavin, as well as two elite forwards, Jake Guentzel and Artemi Panarin. It’s an epic special teams battle on both sides.

And it’s a rematch of the 2022 second-round series, now with two stronger contenders on either side.

The odds

It’s one thing to have the Presidents’ Trophy winners as underdogs in Round 2. That shouldn’t be a surprise given Carolina’s resume, underlying numbers and stronger goal differential. It’s another thing entirely to have the Presidents’ Trophy winners as a heavy underdog.

Some may view that as disrespect to the league’s top team. Or just mathematical coddling of an annual analytics darling. Either take is fair game and it’s worth noting the market, while still favoring Carolina, sees the series a bit closer — as a 60-40 split.

That this model doesn’t has a lot more to do with what it sees from a deeper Carolina roster that now has Guentzel added to the top. This team is different, a group that commands respect beyond being a puck-possession powerhouse. This version of the Hurricanes is a new beast, one that will be extremely difficult for any team to knock off.

The numbers

Carolina has a clear offensive advantage. The Hurricanes generate a ton of shots and quality chances on their opponents and are one of the best forechecking teams in the league. The Rangers, who rely more on the rush, are a lot more middle-of-the-road in what they create.

The difference is that New York makes the most of those opportunities while the Canes notoriously struggle to do the same. Those themes carried into the playoffs — the Hurricanes generated 2.83 expected goals per 60 against the Islanders, but only scored 1.96. The Rangers didn’t produce as many quality chances, with about two per 60, but outscored expectations.

Carolina’s five-on-five advantage extends to defense. The Hurricanes are among the best shot and scoring chance suppressors in the league. What helps limit the danger of the shots they allow back is that the Canes excel at breaking up their opponents’ passes, and that’s a key part of the Rangers attack. That strong defense held up against the Islanders, but they weren’t tested nearly as much as they will be in Round 2.

The Rangers’ defense started to slip post-All-Star break, especially in transition, then rebounded late in the season. New York didn’t allow the Washington Capitals to generate much at five-on-five, but they weren’t tested much, either.

Both teams thrive in special teams situations — the Hurricanes have one of the best penalty kills in the league, and the Rangers aren’t too far behind. New York generates a bit more on the power play, but Carolina is no pushover, either. That these two teams are so closely matched on both ends only emphasizes the five-on-five matchup, which is tilted toward the Canes.

The big question

Can the Rangers keep up at five-on-five?

Another Rangers-Hurricanes series means another opportunity to ask this question. In 2022, when New York beat Carolina in a seven-game, second-round series, the answer was, “Yeah, basically.” Back then, the Rangers outscored the Hurricanes 11-8 at five-on-five and only narrowly lost on expected goals, 53 to 47 percent. (Carolina took about 50 more shots than the Rangers at five-on-five, for whatever that’s worth, but Igor Shesterkin put up a .955 save percentage.) The end result — decent five-on-five production, lopsided special teams (seven power-play goals to Carolina’s two) and an out-of-this-world goaltender — was enough for New York to handle its business.

This time, five-on-five play figures to be even more consequential. Both teams have top-five power plays, with the Hurricanes edging out the Rangers on goals/60 (9.94-9.83), and Shesterkin — great as he was in his final 22 regular-season games, putting up a .930 save percentage — isn’t quite at his near-unbeatable form from 2022. If the power-play production and goaltending are a little more even, logic dictates the Rangers are going to have to make up the difference somewhere.

Of course, in the regular season, the Rangers beat Carolina two out of three times — including once after the Guentzel trade — despite only putting up 40 percent of the expected goal share at five-on-five. Do those results continue with Guentzel more fully integrated into the fold and Frederik Andersen in net for the first time? It isn’t impossible, but it’s also not particularly likely. One is a high-end, all-situations finisher and the other has looked like a Vezina candidate since returning to the lineup in mid-March.

It’s also worth noting that for as outmatched as the Capitals were against the Rangers overall, they still won the expected goal share battle at five-on-five, about 53 to 47 percent. It didn’t amount to much because New York’s finishing ability, goaltending and power-play production outclassed its opponent so dramatically. The Hurricanes, though, are not the Capitals. They’re still as deep as we’ve come to expect, and they now have on paper top-six talent that can go toe-to-toe with anybody.

One interesting potential pressure point for New York, though? The top defensive pairing of Slavin and Burns. The Islanders — nobody’s idea of a dynamic offensive team during the regular season and a relatively easy first-round out — managed to carry nearly 60 percent of the expected goal share with Burns-Slavin on the ice in the first round. Carolina still won on goals 3-1 but it’d stand to reason that the Rangers would do a better job of turning quality looks into actual production.

Overall, though, it’s a tough ask. The Rangers have a path to victory, of course — they didn’t lead the league in points by accident — but it’s tough to say it looks all that different from 2022: rely on their shooting, their all-world special teams and a goaltender who’s eminently capable of stealing a series on his own. If that’s how it unfolds, it’ll count all the same.

The X-factor

Can the Hurricanes keep up between the pipes?

Andersen’s series against the Islanders went something like this: great game, bad game that the Hurricanes still won, decent game, really good game, solid game. The end result was a .912 save percentage and more than two goals saved above average. Does anything about that seem particularly unsustainable?

It shouldn’t. This is who Andersen is, and who he’s been largely since he signed with the Hurricanes. If anything, we could expect him to be a bit better. Last playoffs, he made nine starts and posted a save percentage under .931 just twice, including what might have been the goaltending performance of the postseason in a quadruple-overtime Game 1 loss to Florida in the second round.

After a March 7 return from a blood-clot issue, Andersen posted a .951 save percentage in his 10 final regular-season starts. If there’s a reason for concern, it’s that he went from injured reserve back to every-night starter in a short span, but you could just as easily argue that the time off makes him fresher than your typical playoff 1A. Goalie performance is nearly impossible to predict, as it’s mandatory to note, but not much about Andersen suggests he can’t keep this up.

The rosters

The big question heading into Round 1 was whether Panarin could bring his MVP-caliber play to the postseason. He gave the Rangers some timely scoring to help sweep the Capitals, but there’s still room for improvement at even strength.

Panarin’s line with Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafrenière had the edge in scoring against Washington but gave up as much offense as it created. That could be an area for the Canes to exploit if the Rangers don’t raise the bar closer to their regular-season levels. At their best, between their scoring chance creation and high-danger passing, the line features three dual threats. But it’s also one in which Panarin deservedly gets a lion’s share of the credit. The Rangers need him in MVP form.

With a plus-13 Net Rating, Zibanejad is the second-most valuable center in this series. But the Rangers need him to lean on his best weapon: his shot. His expected goal generation was down in the regular season and dipped even further in Round 1 by 0.98 expected goals for per 60 at five-on-five. His line with Chris Kreider fell below break-even in shots and scoring chances in Round 1, and that is a key reason why.

Behind them, Will Cuylle, Alex Wennberg and Kaapo Kakko haven’t scored a ton since being put together post-deadline. But that trio can be counted on to hold possession in their minutes with a 74 percent expected goals rate against Washington. It’ll be difficult for this line to win minutes to that effect against a deeper Hurricanes team, but the likely addition of Filip Chytil to the top nine at some point might be able to help.

That pushes a forward down to the fourth line and Matt Rempe out of the lineup, a necessary change against a team that doesn’t have a Tom Wilson to consider countering. Whether that happens in Game 1 or beyond is yet to be determined, but such a move would greatly mitigate one of the Rangers’ bigger weaknesses in this series.

Adam Fox is coming off another elite regular season in which he was one of the best all-around defensemen in the league thanks to his on-ice savvy. Fox looked even better than his already lofty expectations in Round 1 while taking on the toughest minutes Washington could throw at him. That workload is about to get a lot tougher for Fox against a much stronger team, though. Washington’s top line had a combined Net Rating of plus-6. Carolina’s top two lines are both above plus-15, with the top line in particular rating as one of the league’s best.

That goes for the rest of the blue line, too, a group that may end up overwhelmed by what the Hurricanes can throw at them.

This will be a major test in particular for K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider. The latter was moved up to the matchup pair to close the season and struggled to replicate what Jacob Trouba managed in the same role. In 200 minutes together over the final 20 games, the new-look matchup pair earned just 45 percent of the expected and actual goals. That trend carried over to the first round against Washington where Miller and Schneider were the only pair that was outchanced and outscored.

That’s potentially all by design as Trouba’s presence on the third pair offers some balance to the bottom four. He seemed to thrive in softer minutes, but his workload in this series is about to get harder as well. It’ll be interesting to see if the Rangers can get by as constructed, or if the Hurricanes can exploit the team’s biggest weakness. Outside of Fox, the team’s defensive depth doesn’t inspire the most confidence — especially given Trouba wasn’t exactly working well with Miller either.

That’s not a massive issue, though, because the Rangers have a safety net behind them in Shesterkin who continues to be the biggest difference-maker in New York. After a shaky first half of the season, Shesterkin was one of the best goalies in the league post-deadline and saved 3.2 goals above expected in the first round.

The Hurricanes now have that finishing talent at the top of their lineup to match up with some of the Rangers’ firepower in Jake Guentzel. He’s produced big numbers since joining the Canes, with 25 points in 17 games to end the regular season before adding another goal and four points against the Islanders.

Guentzel is easily one of the best wingers Sebastian Aho’s skated alongside, and the two have made an excellent pair. In the regular season, the Canes outscored opponents 12-3 in their minutes while earning over 60 percent of the expected goals share. They weren’t quite as potent offensively in Round 1, though.

The one change from regular season to playoffs is the third member of that line. An in-game adjustment early into the series bumped Seth Jarvis to Jordan Staal’s line and Andrei Svechnikov up with Aho and Guentzel.

The Canes went for a power-versus-power matchup against the Islanders, especially on home ice. That meant a lot of minutes against Mathew Barzal, Bo Horvat and Brock Nelson. Carolina’s top line may have outchanced the Islanders 33-13 and earned 58 percent of the expected goals share, but it was outscored 3-0.

The bright side for Carolina is the reunited duo of Jarvis and Staal outscored the Islanders 2-0 at five-on-five while helping control play in their minutes with about 60 percent of the expected goals share. Staal has been as reliable as ever while Jarvis’ breakout season has translated even further to the playoffs. He isn’t just living up to expectations in the postseason on both ends of the ice, he’s crushing them.

Behind them, the Canes have a solid supporting cast. Jordan Martinook’s a spark plug on the third line. Evgeny Kuznetsov slipped down to the fourth line after some regular-season struggles but has picked up the pace in the playoffs. Now he has to show he can maintain that against a deeper opponent.

Defense is an obvious area of strength for Carolina compared to New York. With a combined Net Rating of plus-35, no defense corps is stronger from top to bottom. Still, there’s room for improvement after Round 1. The Canes outscored the Islanders 3-1 with Slavin and Burns on the ice after another excellent regular season from that top pair, but Carolina was outchanced in their minutes.

The second pair can help make up for that when they’re at full strength. Brady Skjei gives the team a high-end second pair regardless, but that pair obviously looks a lot stronger with Brett Pesce than Tony DeAngelo. Pesce is expected to return, but he may not be ready to start the series, which means the second pair’s minutes will have to be managed a bit more to avoid DeAngelo being over-leveraged.

The strength in the Canes’ system is what allows them to interchange defenders. So does Jalen Chatfield’s progression. Carolina’s defensive upside trickles down to the third pair with a plus-7 Net Rating. Having Dmitry Orlov there is a serious luxury and the biggest reason the third pair looks so strong. Orlov led all Hurricanes defenders with 64 percent expected goals in the opening round.

That makes for a tough wall to get through given the group’s impressive two-way ability throughout. Add Andersen in peak form to that and the Hurricanes will be a very tough challenge for the Rangers.

The key matchup

Artemi Panarin vs. Jake Guentzel

Guentzel is the primary reason this series isn’t closer. Without him, it’s a 60-40 split.

Guentzel is a major difference-maker, a pure scorer who generates a ton of dangerous chances. He gives the Hurricanes what they’ve yearned for in past playoffs — especially against a team that’s practically all oomph.

His other selling point, though, isn’t accounted for here — the playoff clutch factor. Over the last decade, only two forwards have elevated their Offensive Rating more in the postseason: Leon Draisaitl and Logan Couture.

Also worth noting: Panarin is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum with the third-worst differential between his regular-season and playoff Offensive Rating.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Guentzel will continue to be a playoff stud or that Panarin will continue to falter — past playoff elevation may not dictate future playoff elevation. But it does mean there will be a heavy spotlight on any contrast between the two star wingers in this series.

If Guentzel shows his clutch ability, can Panarin match it?

There’s no debate regarding Panarin’s status as the best forward in this series, but it’s up to him to actually showcase that. With how deep Carolina is otherwise, that might make all the difference for the Rangers.

The bottom line

The history between these teams and how they’ve improved over the last two years make for one of the best series narratives in the playoffs thus far. Carolina has an undeniable edge, but the Rangers have a handful of possible trump cards.


How these projections work
Understanding projection uncertainty 


Evolving Hockey
Natural Stat Trick
Hockey Reference
All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Photo of Brent Burns poking the puck away from Artemi Panarin: James Guillory / USA Today)



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