Carolina Hurricanes Head-to-Head in New Metropolitan Division: New York Rangers

By Dylan Howlett (@DylanHowlett)

A team falls two games short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final. What does it do to bridge the gap of those two games, exactly?

It reverts to bad habits. It trades three budding prospects for an imposing sniper.

It reverts to old habits. It keeps its acerbic coach, hopes his voice won’t become too hoarse to connect with his players, hopes his affection for shot-blocking doesn’t reduce its best players to bruised plums.

It reverts to optimistic habits. It hopes for the best.

The hope begins to fray, then wilt. The coach’s voice becomes strained, too outsize for a sport inseparably married to team. The team’s first sniper, acquired years before the new sniper, loathes the voice and his relationship with it. The old sniper is traded to the new sniper’s former team.

Days before he was fired, John Tortorella (right) admonished himself for failing to extract the most from his star players, namely Rick Nash (left). That job is now left to Alain Vigneault, Tortorella's replacement in New York and, coincidentally, predecessor in Vancouver (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

Days before he was fired, John Tortorella (right) admonished himself for failing to extract the most from his star players, namely Rick Nash (left). That job is now left to Alain Vigneault, Tortorella’s replacement in New York and, coincidentally, predecessor in Vancouver (Photo Credit: Getty Images).

Then the voice becomes sardonic, a player “stinks,” and suddenly the pursuit of a championship becomes eclipsed by a voice that nobody wants to hear.

It loses in the second round of the playoffs, precisely one round short and eons removed from the oh-so-close run a year before. It’s content with the status quo.

It’s content with the status quo before other voices emerge. They don’t like the voice, the one that infantilizes and demeans. Then there’s a coup.

The voice is silenced. There’s no time for detente. It decides it’s time for a new voice.

Those are the troubles of the New York Rangers, shepherded by the megaphonic growl of John Tortorella and, General Manager Glen Sather hopes, ended by the more humane Alain Vigneault. The roster brims with the same promise of the year before and the year before that. Rick Nash, the new sniper, figures to be unshackled from Tortorella’s restrictive playing style. Marian Gaborik, the old sniper, netted several role players in a trade, mimicking the depth of the 2011-12 iteration of the Rangers, which lost to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final in six games.

Pressing concerns remain. How does Sather fit top center Derek Stepan in a pinhole of cap space without sacrificing a current roster player? Will Henrik Lundqvist, whose discontent reportedly drove the death knell into Tortorella’s tenure with the Rangers, sign an extension before the start of the season or leave Sather in a bundle of anxiety until July? Besides Nash, who can score the big goal, the one that eluded the Rangers against the Devils in 2012 and the Bruins in May? And can Vigneault, who oversaw prolific regular season successes and spectacular playoff flops in Vancouver, cajole his team to the lengths that Tortorella could not?

Can he bridge the gap of those two games?

The third installment of The Hockey Guys‘ look into Carolina’s divisional rivalries features the Rangers.

New York Rangers

Games on the Schedule:

  1. Nov. 2 at New York
  2. Mar. 7 at Carolina
  3. Mar. 11 at Carolina
  4. Apr. 8 at New York

Head-to-Head since 2008-09:

  • Record: 6-8-5 (3-5-2 home; 3-3-3 away; 17 of 38 possible points)
  • Goals For: 45 (no shutouts)
  • Goals Against: 50 (one shutout)
  • Goal Differential: -5
  • Power Play Goals Scored per Game: .53
  • Power Play Goals Allowed per Game: .58

How The Rangers Have Changed during the 2013 Offseason:

As is his pyrotechnic wont, Sather preempted the Big Apple’s July 4th fireworks extravaganza with his dismissal of Tortorella after several players privately voiced their dissatisfaction with the highly combustible bench boss.

The rest of the summer, uncharacteristically for Sather and the Rangers, had as much gusto as a Pop-it Firecracker.

Sather could have splurged on an anemic free agent market if he had bought out Brad Richards, but Richards and his $6.67 million cap hit remain on the roster for at least another year. With key restricted free agents Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin and Stepan awaiting new deals, Sather only had enough room to turn around in a telephone booth, let alone add free agents.

Dominic Moore (left), pictured in a December 2010 game against Carolina, returns to the Rangers — the team that drafted him in 2000 (Photo Credit: Scott Audette/Getty Images).

Dominic Moore (left) — pictured as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a December 2010 game against Carolina — returns to the Rangers, the team that drafted him in 2000 (Photo Credit: Scott Audette/Getty Images).

The bespectacled cigar connoisseur treaded carefully. He allowed bruising winger Ryane Clowe, whom Sather acquired at the trade deadline, to cross The Hudson and sign with the Devils. Blue line incumbents Michael Sauer, Steve Eminger, Roman Hamrlik and Matt Gilroy were also allowed to walk. The exodus was made possible by trades for a pair of depth defensemen — Justin Falk, 24, acquired from Minnesota for winger Benn Ferriero and a sixth-round pick at June’s entry draft, and Danny Syvret, 28, nabbed from the Flyers in exchange for enforcer Kris Newbury.

Sather went to market, albeit cautiously. Benoit Pouliot, a 26-year-old winger who has played on four teams and never scored more than 16 goals in a season, inked a one-year deal. And Dominic Moore, a Rangers draft pick from 2000 who sat out the 2012-13 season to grieve the loss of his wife, Katie, to cancer, signed a one-year deal of his own.

Sather then turned to housekeeping, inking the indefatigable McDonagh to a six-year extension and signing the fleet-footed Hagelin — the subject of Tortorella’s “stinks” barb — to a two-year deal. Mats Zuccarello, a diminutive spark plug on the wing, signed a one-year extension.

Career Stats Against Carolina among The Rangers’ Notable Offseason Additions:

  • Dominic Moore: 31 games played, 4 goals, 7 assists, 11 points, minus-6
  • Benoit Pouliot: 13 games played, 3 goals, 1 assist, 4 points, plus-4

Playoff Meetings in Franchise History: None

They have never met in the postseason, but the Hurricanes’ and Rangers’ paths to the postseason have crossed in recent years. In 2011, Carolina and New York duked it out down the stretch for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed. Both the Canes and Rangers had 91 points with one game remaining, with Carolina set to host Tampa Bay at home and the Rangers closing out their season against the Devils, also at home. On the afternoon of Saturday, Apr. 9, the Rangers thrashed the Devils 5-2 to seal a playoff berth, having owned the tiebreaker over Carolina. In a meaningless game that same night, the Lightning bulldozed the Canes 6-2 in Raleigh.

In 2013, Carolina had a chance to dash the Rangers’ playoff hopes with a regulation win in New York’s penultimate game. The Canes led 3-2 when Tuomo Ruutu was whistled for a marginal tripping minor. Then Richards scored the tying goal with 2:57 left in regulation, and Ryan Callahan beat Carolina netminder Dan Ellis in overtime to punch the Rangers’ postseason ticket.

Intriguing Storyline — Will Marc Join the Staal Family Reunion?

On Mar. 25, Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller pencilled in three Staals into his starting lineup, with youngest Jared joining elders Eric and Jordan at the red line. The opponent that night in Raleigh was the Rangers, for whom the second-oldest Staal sibling, Marc, plays as a reliable physical defenseman.

But Marc wasn’t in the starting lineup. He wasn’t on the bench, either. He watched his brothers from afar in a PNC Arena press box because he couldn’t play, nor could he play in any of the Rangers’ games after Mar. 5, when a deflected puck hit him in the face during a game against Philadelphia.

Marc suffered a right tear in his eye, an impediment to his vision that he said in late May would likely never subside. Little more than two years ago, Marc suffered a concussion after absorbing a check along the boards from brother Eric, then sat out the first half of the 2011-12 season as debilitating post-concussion symptoms refused to abate.

Staal on Staal: the hit that left Marc concussed in Feb. 2011 (Photo Credit: Phil Ellsworth/Getty Images).

Staal on Staal: the hit that left Marc concussed in Feb. 2011 (Photo Credit: Phil Ellsworth/Getty Images).

With his eye proving uncooperative, Marc couldn’t join his brothers in an alignment of sibling stars. The reunion would have to wait and could wait longer still if Staal’s vision remains too compromised to play.

But Staal told reporters in late July that he has been training and skating hard in hopes of being ready for the start of training camp. With Jared poised to contend for a roster spot in Raleigh, the prides of Thunder Bay, Ontario, could all meet for the first time on an NHL ice surface in 2013-14.

Health provided, Marc won’t need to RSVP. He’ll be there.

Key Match-up — Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi vs. Canes’ Top Scoring Talent

Easily mistaken for the Energeizer Bunny by Tortorella, McDonagh and Girardi have emerged as two of the league’s eminent shutdown defensemen. Both have logged enough time-on-ice since 2011-12 to land among the top-ten minute-munchers in the league. Last season, Girardi led the NHL in blocked shots and had the fifth-most in 2011-12. An organization once baffled by the suffocating defensive model championed by the Hudson River-rival Devils embraced the same approach under Tortorella. It worked to the tune of that 2012 Eastern Conference Final appearance, even if McDonagh and Girardi were held together with Scotch tape by the time two seven-game series and another bumper-car ride against New Jersey had ended.

Vigneault figures to give his defensemen an edict rooted more in finesse and puck movement than brute resistance, but McDonagh and Girardi will continue their role as six-foot cinderblocks in front of Lundqvist. They can also expect to play against the competition’s best forwards, particularly if Marc Staal continues to suffer from harrowing vision complications. Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alex Semin can, in turn, expect to see a steady diet of number-27 and number-5 whenever they hit the ice. To get to Lundqvist, the Canes’ top scoring tandem will have to breach the McDonagh-Girardi dam or defer to secondary help, by way of Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal or Tuomo Ruutu.

Key Opponent — Carl Hagelin

Hagelin’s career output against the Canes (1 goal, 6 assists, 7 points in 6 games) is hardly appreciable. His speed, though, is award-winning — if the “Fastest Skater” contest at the All-Star Game SuperSkills Competition can be considered a legitimate award.

Carl Hagelin (left) and Alex Semin (right) have the capacity to leave an imprint on the Hurricanes-Rangers divisional rivalry (Photo Credit: Scott Levy/Getty Images).

Carl Hagelin (left) and Alex Semin (right) have the capacity to leave an imprint on the Hurricanes-Rangers divisional rivalry (Photo Credit: Scott Levy/Getty Images).

The 25-year-old Swedish native can churn his legs at a blinding rate. He can swing out wide and beat a defenseman down the wing. He can cut to the net, squeeze through a seam and beat a defenseman to a loose puck. He can separate himself on a breakaway with a flurry of quick strides.

Hagelin could present a world of trouble for the Hurricanes, whose defense corps is more of the plodding variety. Only Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy have the breakout quickness to catch Hagelin at full tilt, his favorite gear in open ice. Playing Hagelin with punishing physicality, perhaps supplied by Jay Harrison or Tim Gleason, could discourage him from skating rings around the Canes’ defensive zone.

Critical Cane — Alex Semin

Semin has only 6 goals and 18 points in 23 career games against the Rangers, but he possesses the kryptonite that could dethrone a “king.”

If there’s anything that could complicate Lundqvist’s questionable claim to royalty, it’s a hard, high-glove wrist shot. According to this chart by ESPN Stats Analyst Tyler Norsworthy, that’s precisely where opposing forwards should aim against a Gold-Medal winner, a one-time Vezina Trophy winner, and winner of not much else.

With his devastatingly sharp release and sniper-like accuracy, Semin has the arsenal to give Lundqvist fits, much as Ilya Kovalchuk did with the Devils before defecting to the KHL.

Head-to-Head Significance Meter: 8/10

Aside from the four-way intersection of Staal Brothers, Hurricanes-Rangers doesn’t carry much intrigue. But if the Canes have any chance of making the playoffs, they’ll have to improve their performance against the Blueshirts. With a remarkable grasp of the obvious, these games — and all 78 other games, too — are fairly crucial to the Canes’ postseason aspirations.

"Master of The Obvious" warning: the Canes need to play better against the Hurricanes to bolster their playoff hopes (Photo Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images).

“Master of The Obvious” warning: the Canes need to play better against the Hurricanes to bolster their playoff hopes (Photo Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images).

 

Related Articles:

Metropolitan Division Preview: Hurricanes-Devils

Metropolitan Division Preview: Hurricanes-Islanders

Hartnett: John Tortorella Is A Ticking Time Bomb in Vancouver 

Hartnett: Retaining Richards Is Starting To Bite The Rangers Hard

 

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