One day shy of 20 weeks since the NHL put its season on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Carolina Hurricanes will hit the ice Wednesday against another team. Sure, it will just be an exhibition against the Washington Capitals, but it’s the first chance to play for real — kind of.
“Yes, we’re playing hard against each other, but it’s a huge difference when you get hit,” Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams said Monday of the exhibition. “So I’m gonna throw a few hits that probably aren’t gonna hurt anybody, but I’m going to take some hits as well.”
It will be the lone tune-up before the start of Carolina’s five-game play-in series with the New York Rangers on Saturday.
It will also be a chance for both teams to try and find some normalcy after entering the Toronto bubble where they will spend as much time as their success allows.
“Once you actually get to the rink, the one place that actually feels normal is when you lace your skates up,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said in his first Zoom press conference from Toronto. “That’s the one place that it feels normal. So yeah, you gotta deal with all of this. Everybody’s dealing with it. There’s absolutely no one that’s not. So I think players are all refreshed when they actually get out on the ice and go play.”
Hurricanes vs. Rangers
Game 1: Saturday, noon
Game 2: Monday, noon
Game 3: Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Game 4: Aug. 6, 1 p.m.*
Game 5: Aug. 8, 1 p.m.*
* if necessary
The league did try to add some touches of home, putting family photos in the players’ bubble rooms as a way to ease the transition when in between games.
“I talked to my wife, and I guess they reached out to your family to send a picture. … It’s nice just to have that little touch of home,” said alternate captain Jordan Martinook, who last week admitted talking about leaving his wife and young son back in western Canada to come back and play had him “a little choked up.”
The mental aspect of this unique conclusion to the NHL season could prove as important to the 24 teams invited to the league’s return-to-play bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton as how well they’ve prepared for this new-look postseason.
“Obviously, we miss our families, we miss a lot of things, but it is unprecedented times,” Martinook said. “It’s kind of a cool circumstance that you get — your team is your family for the foreseeable future. And, obviously, we’re a family throughout the year, but you’re definitely going to be a lot tighter after this.”
Just how tight will depend on the results, and it starts against the Rangers. Here’s how the teams match up.
The Rangers have a Hart Trophy finalist in winger Artemi Panarin and a consistent thorn in Carolina’s side in center Mika Zibanejad. Chris Kreider — armed with a new contract signed on trade deadline day worth $45.5 million over seven years — is capable of taking over a game with his size and speed. That’s enough to give any team — especially the Hurricanes, 0-4 against the Rangers during the regular season — fits.
There are also some familiar faces among New York’s forward corps, with Greg McKegg, Phil Di Giuseppe and Julien Gauthier all wearing Rangers blue now.
New York will be without Brendan Lemieux for the first two games of the series after he was suspended two games for an illegal check back in March, so all three former Hurricanes could be in the lineup early in the series.
Carolina may not have a 95-point player like Panarin, but the Hurricanes are deeper in the forward ranks than their opponent. While the Rangers will rely on their top two lines to score, Brind’Amour can roll out four lines with scoring touch, particularly if Warren Foegele can replicate the performance he had in his first postseason a year ago.
Even with Dougie Hamilton’s status up in the air and Brett Pesce not ready following March shoulder surgery, Carolina’s defense is something to behold.
Jaccob Slavin remains arguably the top defensive defensemen in the game, and Panarin should expect to see a steady dose of him all series. Deadline acquisition Sami Vatanen is finally healthy and gives the Hurricanes another top-four blueliner.
And then there’s Brady Skjei, traded to Carolina from the Rangers at the deadline and ready to prove his old team wrong.
“I’ve got a ton of motivation with a chip on my shoulder going into this playoff series,” Skjei said back on July 16.
He might also have some pointers for his new teammates.
“I don’t wanna give away too much, but we’ve talked to Brady a little bit,” Brind’Amour said back in mid-July. “So we’ll definitely use him as a resource here when we start dialing up more talking about our opponent. … We’ll definitely pick his brain.”
The Rangers do have some young talent on D, led by rookie Adam Fox.
Fox, who was part of the 2018 draft weekend trade that brought Hamilton to Carolina from Calgary, strong-armed his way into a trade to New York and has been better than the Blueshirts could have even expected with 43 points in his rookie year. Tony DeAngelo and Jacob Trouba are also young, new-age defensemen that can move the puck.
But there’s a dropoff from there. Marc Staal is on the wrong side of 30, Brendan Smith remains underwhelming and Ryan Lindgren has just 65 games of NHL experience under his belt. There’s not a lot of help there to make up the 20 minutes per game Skjei was playing when he was in New York.
The one place where the Rangers hold an edge is in net. Veteran Henrik Lundqvist and rookie Igor Shesterkin each won their starts against Carolina this season, and Alexander Georgiev is just as capable of getting the job done. The question will be who coach David Quinn goes with to start the series, though there are multiple options if his first choice falters.
The Hurricanes also have a decision to make in goal. Can Petr Mrazek — who was fueled by the Carolina fans during last season’s playoff run — be effective in an empty arena? Or could James Reimer provide a calming influence during the series and beyond?
Edge: New York
The Rangers survived Carolina’s onslaught again and again in the regular season (the Hurricanes outshot New York a combined 161-104 in the four games), but it will be even harder in a five-game series. While a goalie — particularly a New York one — could steal the series, the Hurricanes are just too deep for the still-rebuilding Rangers.
Prediction: Hurricanes in 4.