Rangers 3 keys for Game 1 of playoff series against Hurricanes

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After a week off, the New York Rangers return to postseason play Sunday when they host the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round.

The Rangers dispatched of the overmatched Washington Capitals in a four-game sweep in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning Game 4 on the road last Sunday, 4-2.

The Hurricanes arrive at Madison Square Garden after knocking out the New York Islanders in five games, winning Game 5 at home, 6-3, on Tuesday.

Whereas the Rangers trailed for less than four minutes in their series against the Capitals, the Hurricanes had to work a bit harder, rallying from a 3-0 hole in Game 2, losing in double overtime in Game 4 and needing a three-goal third period to pull away in the series finale.

But each of these NHL behemoths is well rested and playing at an extremely high level. The Rangers are an incredible 30-7-1 since Jan. 27, including the playoffs. The Hurricanes are 34-11-3 since Dec. 27, including the postseason.

New York took the regular-season series 2-1-0 and finished three points ahead of Carolina to finish first in the Metropolitan Division and win the Presidents’ Trophy.

Game 1 of this best-of-7 series can help set the tone on what should be a memorable clash between these division rivals.

Here’s a breakdown of three keys for the Rangers in their Game 1 matchup against the Hurricanes.

Related: Rangers vs. Hurricanes: schedule, results, TV info for second-round playoff series

3. Winning neutral-zone battles crucial for Rangers

NHL: New York Rangers at Carolina Hurricanes
Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Hurricanes want to get the puck in deep and relentlessly outwork their opponent, building a substantial advantage in shot attempts, scoring chances and, simply, shots on goal. They are fast and play with a “relentless pace,” per Rangers radio analyst Dave Maloney. Rangers coach Peter Laviolette noted how the Hurricanes “attack, attack, attack.”

So, the best way to counter-attack that is to win your neutral zone battles against Carolina. The more the Rangers can turn the Hurricanes over between the blue lines and quickly accelerate into their own transition game, the better.

The good news for New York is that this is a staple of its own success this season. Laviolette preached playing a 200-foot game and being strong in the neutral zone from Day 1. He’s also given the Rangers the structure to rely on and trust against such a persistent opponent.

But if the Rangers can get to their transition game and not have to lug the puck 200 feet against the Hurricanes, they can reverse course and cause their own damage. This 5v5 battle of wills is a key determining factor in Game 1, and throughout the series.

2. Braden Schneider, K’Andre Miller among Rangers defensemen who must withstand Hurricanes pressure

Of course, the Hurricanes are going to break through at times — if not often — and go to work in the Blueshirts zone. So, there will be a ton of pressure on Rangers defensemen to win puck puck battles and get the puck out of the zone as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The Braden Schneider – K’Andre Miller pairing was outchanced during the Capitals series, so the two youngest Rangers defensemen bear watching against a talented and experienced Hurricanes forward group. But the Adam Fox – Ryan Lindgren pairing and the veteran duo of Jacob Trouba and Erik Gustafsson will be under much duress, as well. New York’s forwards must do their part to slow down Carolina and help with keeping the puck out of danger in its own end, too.

The blueprint was set in New York’s 1-0 win down in Raleigh on March 12. The Rangers did a masterful job defensively in that game and capitalized for the game’s only goal. Their neutral-zone play and how they defended in their end was, by and large, excellent.

A similar performance is needed Sunday in Game 1.

1. Igor Shetserkin gives Rangers confidence in close game, series

When all else fails against the Hurricanes, the Rangers will look to Igor Shesterkin to come up big between the pipes. That’s something he’s accustomed to, as evidenced by his outstanding play during Games 3 and 4 in the first round down in Washington.

There’s something special about Shesterkin at Madison Square Garden, too. He’s allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of his past 11 home playoff starts. He was 3-0 at home against the Hurricanes in the 2022 playoffs before backstopping a 6-2 road win in Game 7 to clinch the series. The Rangers say that what happened in 2022 doesn’t matter now, two years later. But Shesterkin’s history here certainly doesn’t hurt.

Shesterkin might give the Rangers a key advantage in goal in this series. That’s no knock on Fredrik Andersen, who’s been outstanding since returning from a blood-clotting issue that cost him four months of the season and is capable of clutch goaltending, as well. It’s more a nod to how great Shesterkin has been since regaining his Vezina Trophy form the past three months.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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