Play-in preview: Rangers, Hurricanes set for chaotic matchup
Gregg Forwerck / National Hockey League / Getty

The matchup between the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes is arguably one of the most unpredictable of all the play-in series. There's enough talent on both teams to make some serious noise in the playoffs, but only one will advance.

The Hurricanes finished the regular season with a better record, but this series may be more even than many think. Let's break it down.

Schedule

Game Date Time (ET)
1 Sat. Aug. 1 12:00 p.m.
2 Mon. Aug. 3 12:00 p.m.
3 Tues. Aug. 4 8:00 p.m.
4* Thurs. Aug. 6 TBD
5* Sat. Aug. 8 TBD

*If necessary

Tale of the tape

Hurricanes Stat Rangers
38-25-5 Record 37-28-5
3.19 (11) Goals per game 3.33 (5)
2.84 (T11) Goals against 3.14 (T23)
22.3 (8) Power play % 22.9 (7)
84.0 (4) Penalty kill % 77.5 (23)
54.30 (3) 5-on-5 Corsi For % 46.73 (28)
8.11 (17) 5-on-5 SH% 8.89 (7)
.912 (26) 5-on-5 SV% .920 (12)

Season series

The Rangers dominated the Hurricanes, sweeping the season series 4-0. New York didn't even concede a point to Carolina, winning all four games in regulation.

Key players to watch

Sebastian Aho

Gregg Forwerck / National Hockey League / Getty

It's hard to believe Aho turned only 23 years old last week. The young Finnish star has now strung together two straight elite seasons, recording 68 goals and 151 points over his last 150 games. In what should be a high-flying series, the Hurricanes will need Aho to be at the top of his game.

The majority of the Hurricanes' scoring comes from their top line, which features Aho centering Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen. The trio combined for 77 markers this season, accounting for 40% of the club's goals. Among forwards who have logged 800-plus minutes of ice time this season, Aho ranks eighth in Corsi For rating at 56.79. Teravainen and Svechnikov rank just ahead of him in sixth and seventh, respectively.

Aho creates magic, and he proved himself in his first taste of the playoffs last season, posting 12 points in 15 contests. The Hurricanes play a sound defensive game, but they'll depend on Aho and the top line to generate offense.

Mika Zibanejad

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Most will focus on Hart Trophy nominee Artemi Panarin when analyzing the Rangers, but Zibanejad deserves a lot of attention, too. It's clear what Panarin brings to the table, but Zibanejad showed this season he's just as dangerous when hot.

The 27-year-old led the Rangers with 41 goals despite playing only 57 games. The center's goals-per-game rate (0.72) was the NHL's best this season. He was arguably the league's hottest player before the campaign was paused on March 12, racking up 25 goals and 44 points in the 31 games since Jan. 1.

New York now hopes Zibanejad picks up where he left off, as beating the Rangers will be much more difficult if he catches fire.

Hurricanes can win if ...

The Hurricanes need to stick to their identity. Carolina is a pesky team that can play both sides of the puck extremely well and strike at any moment.

The Canes are one of the league's best possession teams. They rank 11th in goals for and 11th in goals against. Their power play is the league's eighth-best, while the team's penalty kill ranks fourth.

Carolina is an extremely balanced squad, and the Hurricanes can play a different style depending on their opponent or the game situation. The Rangers will certainly have their hands full.

Rangers can win if ...

It may be a tough pill to swallow for Rangers fans, but rookie netminder Igor Shesterkin needs to be in net for most of the series for New York to have a chance. The Russian phenom only played in 12 games this season, but he went 10-2-0 with a great .932 save percentage.

The Rangers allowed a lot of goals while spending plenty of time in the defensive zone this campaign. They ranked 23rd in goals against per game (3.14), 28th in five-on-five Corsi For (46.73%), and allowed the ninth-most shots on goal (1,789).

As good as Henrik Lundqvist has been in the past, the Hurricanes will test the Rangers often. Yes, he played extremely well in three games against Carolina this season. But the 38-year-old is coming off his worst statistical campaign. Nearly eight months after his last game versus Carolina, it will be a whole new story in the qualifying round.

With a guaranteed back-to-back game in the series, Lundqvist should get at least one start. Overall, though, Shesterkin is much more capable of weathering the storm in a short series with little room for error.

X-factors

Jaccob Slavin

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When Dougie Hamilton went down with a broken leg in January, Slavin stepped up to fill the gap on the blue line, playing significant minutes in mostly a shutdown defensive role. But he also chipped in offensively with six goals and 30 assists.

He ranked sixth among all players in shorthanded ice time, and Slavin is a large reason why Carolina boasts one of the league's best penalty kills. With Hamilton nursing a new injury and possibly unavailable for most of the qualifying round, Slavin will need to step up once again.

Tony DeAngelo

Jared Silber / National Hockey League / Getty

DeAngelo produced a breakout year with the Rangers this season, recording 15 goals and adding 38 assists in 68 games. He finished the campaign ranked fourth among all defensemen in points.

The 24-year-old can be a bit of a defensive liability. He starts nearly 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone, but that's not necessarily an issue. If he can continue his elite offensive play and help keep the puck in the Hurricanes' zone as much as possible, DeAngelo will be a very valuable asset for the Rangers.

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Play-in preview: Rangers, Hurricanes set for chaotic matchup
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