While the Tampa Bay Lightning await their Eastern Conference Final opponent, New York and Carolina are tied 2-2 after the Rangers pulled even last night.
It’s the only series that isn’t facing elimination, so let’s break down four keys to this series through four games:
Strength in net
Goaltending was a big storyline for both teams going into this series. Everyone knows how dominant Igor Shesterkin was in the regular season, saving a league-leading 40.7 more goals than expected, 25 quality starts, and nine stolen wins. While he slipped in Games 3 and 4 of Round 1, he’s otherwise been elite as expected.
In this series, Shesterkin’s earned a sparking .959 save percentage and stopped 5.8 goals above expected against all shot attempts he’s faced in all situations. In total through 11 games, he has a .925 save percentage and GSAx of +7.
On the flip side, there’s Anti Raanta. The storylines were more about the Hurricanes’ crease as a whole given Frederik Andersen’s injury status. But the backup has run with the starter’s crease, earning a .936 save percentage and stopping 2.8 more goals than expected. In 10 total playoff games, he now has a .931 save percentage and GSAx of 3.9.
Both teams have strength in net which has kept this series closer than anticipated given the teams in front of the blue paint.
Five-on-five play is closer than expected
Based on the regular season, Carolina outright had the edge over their Round 2 opponents at 5-on-5. The Rangers may have had some results in those situations thanks to their finishing talent and saving, but below the surface painted a more concerning picture.
New York managed to clean up play in their own zone post-deadline and did make some offensive improvements. Of course, those all fell apart in Round 1 casting more doubt about how this series would look, especially with the Hurricanes’ aggressive forecheck in mind.
But the Rangers are holding pace better than anticipated, and that’s a reason why this series is tied. The Hurricanes still are the stronger team at holding the blue line and extending zone time. They’re also attempting a ton of passes in the offensive zone and generating more shots.
That’s giving New York a lot to work with and they’re doing their best to block passes and shots at a high rate to limit quality chances or cycle shots. While Carolina can create scoring chances off the rush, they’ve only attempted 4.83 attempts from the slot off the cycle which was a strong point in their game in the regular season.
Another strong point was limiting those chances against; Carolina was one of the best yet they’re allowing 6.65 attempts from the Rangers.
Carolina still has the slight edge in expected goal generated with 8.35 through four games. But they don’t have the goal scoring to show it, netting only four goals so far.
As much as they’re testing Igor Shesterkin with shot volume, the Rangers are doing their best to keep their quality shot generation as even as possible. And vice-versa, New York’s testing Raanta with a slightly higher rate of slot shots. They’ve generated 7.65 expected goals for that they’ve mustered five tallies from.
Carolina can’t win on the road
The Hurricanes have played 11 games so far, and all six losses have come away from PNC Arena. The advantage is that they have home ice, so if this were to go seven that last tilt won’t be on the road. But it’s particularly curious just how long this trend as continued.
Maybe it’s a matter of the matchup game — the Bruins were able to push Sebastian Aho’s line by matching them against Patrice Bergeron’s. Or that in this round the Rangers can get Mika Zibanejad away from Jordan Staal, after the Canes’ shutdown trio did their best to suppress New York’s top line.
Carolina did play well at Madison Square Garden, especially in Game 3, and didn’t have the results to show for it. So it’s not simply this team collapsing on the road. But it’s something to watch moving forward because even though the Hurricanes will maintain home ice if they make it to next series, it’s a hurdle they’re going to have to prove to themselves they can get past.
Ryan Lindgren’s impact
The Rangers struggled without one of their top pairing defenders in Round 1 while Ryan Lindgren was sidelined with… what we imagine is a myriad of injuries at this point.
Without him, Adam Fox was left on an imbalanced pairing with Justin Braun. And the third pair of Patrik Nemeth and Braden Schneider struggled as well. That put even more pressure on K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba against an elite trio in Pittsburgh, led by Sidney Crosby. While one player shouldn’t make or break a blue line, when depth is an issue, it can throw everything out of sorts.
Of the Rangers’ mainstay pairs, Fox and Lindgren lead the way with a 56 percent expected goals rate at even strength. The lefty’s defensive game helps complement Fox’s elite two-way play, and that’s shown through in this series in particular. Lindgren can separate opponents from the puck with his physical play or stick, while Fox uses his stick and smart positioning to limit plays against. And the league knows what the reigning-Norris Trophy winner can do with the puck on his stick.
This pair has been key for the Rangers in their minutes together, and that was put in display in Game 4 on the way to evening this series. Shot attempts were 15-14 in New York’s favor with them, but how they worked to limit quality chances against is what really stood out. Carolina only managed one slot attempt against with these two on the ice, meanwhile New York generated nine.
All the while, this duo saw a lot of both Aho’s line and Vincent Trocheck’s. New York knows what they look like without Fox and Lindgren leading the way on the backend, so they have to carry this strong game back to Carolina to make some noise in this series.
Data via Sportlogiq