The Carolina Hurricanes are determined to make a second straight deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That can only happen if they do something they have rarely done over the past decade: beat the New York Rangers.
The teams meet Saturday in Toronto to open a best-of-5 series in the Eastern Conference’s expanded qualifying round, marking the first game of the NHL’s return to play after shutting down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The sixth-seeded Hurricanes – who ended a nine-year playoff drought by reaching last year’s Eastern Conference finals – lost all four regular-season meetings to New York. The Hurricanes led for 11:16 in 240 combined minutes in those games, all coming in the Dec. 27 matchup, according to SportRadar.
Not only that, the Rangers have won 31 of 37 meetings dating to February 2011.
“I think the whole regular season is so gone, far back, that even if we had won four in a row or whatever, I just think it would be such a nonfactor," Brind'Amour said. “Everyone’s coming in different right now, starting fresh. ... I think everyone feels it, the players feel like, ’OK, I’ve got a fresh start.' Everybody really does."
The 11th-seeded Rangers built momentum through February to secure one of the last spots, including a run of nine straight road wins. They ranked fifth in the league in scoring (3.33 goals per game).
Artemi Panarin, last summer’s top free agent, provided a huge boost to the Rangers with a career-high 95 points (tied for third in the NHL) with 32 goals and 63 assists. There is also the league’s fifth-best goal scorer in Mika Zibanejad (41) along with promising youngsters like last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick Kaapo Kakko and rookie defenceman Adam Fox.
“This isn’t about creating experience for us down the line,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “This is about us winning hockey games.”
The Hurricanes and Rangers ranked in the NHL's top 10 on the power play, while the Hurricanes ranked fourth on the penalty kill. But the Rangers went 5 of 15 (33.3%) in the regular-season series while the Hurricanes went 2 of 16 (12.5%).
BETWEEN THE PIPES
New York's Henrik Lundqvist won three times against Carolina (2.33 goals-against average, .947 save percentage) while the 38-year-old veteran was just 7-12-3 otherwise. The other win against the Hurricanes came from Igor Shesterkin, who took over the No. 1 spot following his NHL debut on Jan. 7 and went 10-2.
Carolina’s Petr Mrazek and James Reimer allowed 15 goals with an .852 save percentage against the Rangers.
The status of Carolina All-Star defenceman Dougie Hamilton is uncertain, both for this series and beyond.
Hamilton – who returned in training camp from a broken left leg suffered in January – missed practice twice last week. Brind’Amour said Monday that Hamilton (14 goals) was “still unfit” to play, offering no details amid the NHL’s prohibition on teams disclosing whether a player is injured or ill.
Sami Vatanen, acquired from New Jersey at the February trade deadline, saw time in Hamilton’s spot Saturday alongside Jaccob Slavin.
New York had an NHL-best 183 points from defencemen , including 44 goals to rank tied for second with Philadelphia behind St. Louis. That included a breakout season from Tony DeAngelo, who had career highs of 15 goals and 38 assists.
“You want to win hockey games, you better score goals,” Quinn said. “There is a balancing act. You can do both — you can play good defence and you can score goals.”
The Hurricanes could use a big performance from 20-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, who had a memorable playoff debut last year.
The No. 2 overall draft pick in 2018 started with two goals against Washington, but ended up in the concussion protocol after fighting Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin in Game 3 of that first-round series and missed six games. He had 61 points (24 goals) during the regular season.
Forward Warren Foegele chuckled when asked if he had told Svechnikov to duck this time if anyone takes a swing at him, noting: “I think he knows what to do for next time.”
AP Sports Writer Vin A. Cherwoo in New York contributed to this report.
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Aaron Beard, The Associated Press