After more than four months without hockey, our team of RotoWire experts is here to get you back up to speed ahead of the eight play-in series kicking off Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton. Via eight preview pieces over eight days, we get into positional breakdowns, injury updates and series predictions to help you chart the course for your frozen fantasy journey this summer!
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, 4th in Metropolitan, .596 points percentage)
No. 11 New York Rangers (37-28-5, 7th in Metropolitan, .564 points percentage)
Hurricanes: The bulk of Carolina's offense comes from a trio of under-25-year-old's who each eclipsed the 60-point mark this year: Sebastian Aho (66 points), Teuvo Teravainen (63) and Andrei Svechnikov (61). The most impressive output from the three is easily Aho's 38 goals in 68 games (sixth in the NHL), which was a fantastic jump in development after last season's already impressive 30-in-82 performance. It's no surprise then that the big three routinely line up together on the No. 1 line and power-play unit, where Svechnikov mans the point next to top blueliner Dougie Hamilton. After that, the production falls off substantially, though veteran personnel like trade-deadline acquisition Vincent Trocheck (38 points), Nino Niederreiter (29) and Jordan Staal (27) have certainly flashed ample scoring ability in the past. Together with "Mr. Game 7" and resident elder statesman Justin Williams, the Hurricanes have plenty of leadership and playoff experience to complement their younger secondary scoring pieces, which also includes Warren Foegele (30 points), Ryan Dzingel (29) and Lucas Wallmark (23).
Rangers: The not-so-rebuilding Rangers were treated to offensive explosions – and career highs – by superstar Artemi Panarin and ninth-year NHLer Mika Zibanejad this year. Panarin's 95 points (and whopping plus-36 rating) earned him an MVP nomination with Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon, while Zibanejad's 41 goals in just 57 games (!) jump off the page as video-game numbers that amount to an insane 59-goal pace over a full 82-game season. Ryan Strome anchored the team's secondary scoring by eclipsing the 50-point plateau for the first time in his career (18 goals, 41 assists), and Pavel Buchnevich (46 points) and Chris Kreider (45 points) both chipped in regularly, as well. Highly touted rookie and 2019 second-overall pick Kaappo Kakko fared admirably in his age-18 season with 23 points through 66 games and could cause some havoc in the shortened five-game series, though his minus-26 rating and inexperience probably make him a bit of a liability. For what it's worth, the Rangers also swept the four-game season series and outscored the Hurricanes 17-9. They've also gone 37-14-1 against Carolina since 2005-06, if you're into those types of historical statistics. Food for thought, right?
The Blue Line
Hurricanes: Dougie Hamilton's 40 points (20th overall among league rearguards) and Jaccob Slavin's 36 points (25th overall) helped the team to frequent production from the back end on one of the league's best D pairings. Most notable, however, were their identical plus-30 ratings, which were third in the NHL. The duo also averaged over 23 minutes of ice time, so it goes without saying that they're collectively both a model of scoring consistency, as well as a stabilizing force the team depends on to keep the puck out of their own net. Jake Gardiner chipped in with four goals and 24 points, as well, but his minus-24 and 16:40 of ice time aren't in the same stratosphere as Hamilton and Slavvin. X-factors include: Brady Skjei, who will be facing his former team after only suiting up for seven games with Carolina following his trade-dealine acquisition, and Sami Vatanen, who's fully recovered from a leg injury that's prevented him from making his Carolina debut since coming over in trade Feb. 24. They're expected to form the second D-pairing behind Hamilton and Slavin and are both capable puck-movers with a knack for getting on the scoresheet.
Rangers: Hamilton and Slavin may have combined for 76 points, but the Rangers got even more production out of their top two rearguards. 24-year-old Anthony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points) and 22-year-old Adam Fox (42 points, plus-22) were an integral part of the offense on Broadway this season, but here's the kicker: they played together less than 15 percent of the time at even strength. That makes for a more well-rounded offensive threat from the blue line compared to an asset like Hamilton, who skated with Slavvin on over 70 percent of his even-strength shifts. Veteran and first-year Blueshirt Jacob Trouba was no slouch, either, in providing 27 points, but things fall off considerably after that. Marc Staal, Brendan Smith and Ryan Lindgren project to round out the team's defense corps after collectively producing 33 points in 2019-20.
Between the Pipes
Hurricanes: James Reimer was deemed healthy and available at the end of March following a short injury absence, but Petr Mrazek is probably still the incumbent (and expected playoff) starter despite some history of inconsistency. Mrazek went 21-16-2 with a 2.69 GAA and .905 save percentage, unspectacular ratios that barely lagged behind his career marks of 2.62 and .910. It's worth noting that the Czech netminder took the loss in all three starts against the Rangers this year, allowing 10 goals in the process. As for postseason play, he started 11 of the Canes' 15 playoff games in their run to the Eastern Conference Final last year, winning five while posting two shutouts, so there's some reason for optimism here – especially since neither of the expected No. 1 and No. 2 goalies on the other end of the rink for New York have seen any NHL playoff action (more on that below).
Rangers: 24-year-old rookie Igor Shesterkin made his NHL debut in January and dazzled over 12 starts, going 10-2-0 with a 2.52 GAA and a sparkling .932 save percentage. As such, he's likely got the inside track over Alexandar Georgiev, who played more this season but put up pedestrian numbers (17-14-2, 3.04 GAA, .910 save percentage). Of course, veteran Henrik Lundqvist (and his 128 games of playoff experience) will be standing by if things really go south, but with such a short series, it doesn't seem likely we'll get to see The King between the pipes. Stranger things have happened, though, and it doesn't seem wise to rule anything out in what will truly be unprecedented playing conditions.
Both teams have gotten a chance to heal up during the suspension of play, as the aforementioned Hamilton, Vatanen and Reimer are reportedly fully recovered and good to go for the Canes. D-man Brett Pesce (shoulder) is expected to miss the entirety of the postseason.
On the New York side, Kreider is fully recovered from his foot injury suffered in February. Pugilist and frequent scratch Micheal Haley (upper body) is at camp but he's still on injured reserve, and his lone point in 22 contests doesn't set him up to move the fantasy needle, anyway. Brendan Lemieux (18 points in 59 games) is set to sit out Games 1 and 2 for a suspension assessed in March.
Jordan Buckley: New York gets the edge in forward starpower and goaltending, while it's tough to bet against Carolina's veteran depth and the steadiness of Hamilton and Slavin in all three zones. If they can't contain Panarin and Zibanejad, though — and the Blueshirts scoring lines are able to run wild and find twine behind Mrazek and/or Reimer early on – look out. This is going to be a fun series. Rangers in five, and (bonus prediction!) one of their young goalies will go full brick-wall-mode with a 50-plus save performance at least once.
Kyle Riley: I think the Rangers will make this series interesting with a few stellar performances in net from Shesterkin coupled with a few high-scoring performances from Panarin and Zibanejad up front, but Carolina's ability to roll four lines and loaded defensive corps will ultimately prevail. Hurricanes in five.
AJ Scholz: The netminding situation for the Hurricanes is questionable at best but this is a deep, offensively gifted forward group that added a stud in Vincent Trocheck at the trade deadline. I don't expect the series to end quickly, and I suspect we haven't seen the last of King Henrik for the Rangers. Still, the Blueshirts simply don't have a way to keep up with the Canes' top-nine forwards. Carolina in five.
Jason Chen: On paper, the Hurricanes have a distinct advantage with their ability to drive play and their elite defensemen, but a glaring hole remains in net. Mrazek can be pretty good sometimes but he's generally mediocre; fortunately, the Rangers have only two good lines. The Hurricanes' edge in the quality of their bottom six and overall defense should be enough. Hurricanes in four.
Evan Berofsky: The Canes have succeeded in recent years by building roster depth and a winning attitude. The Rangers finished the abbreviated regular portion on fire and swept the season series 4-0. Carolina may be the favorite going in, but New York will come out on top if Shesterkin is given top billing. Rangers in five.
Jan Levine: New York dominated action this season against Carolina, but much of this likely can be discounted given the lengthy pause in play. The Rangers are viewed as a darkhorse to make a playoff run due to the presence of Shesterkin between the pipes and Zibanejad and Panarin up front. Carolina has a major edge on the blue line with the return of Hamilton and Vatanen. New York's material advantage is between the pipes, which should allow the Blueshirts to advance. Rangers in five.