Rangers coach Gerard Gallant would like everyone to believe that he’s not interested in hyping up any "first-place showdown’’ narratives when his team meets Metropolitan Division rival Carolina on Friday in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"Obviously, we know the standings are real close in the top of our division, but it’s just another game, a big two points, and we’re playing against a real good team,’’ Gallant said Thursday.
But with all due respect to Gallant, this clearly won’t be just another game. The Rangers are in first place in the division at 26-10-4 (56 points). The Hurricanes (26-8-2) have 54 points but have played four fewer games. With the Rangers about to hit the midpoint of their season in their 41st game, this sure seems like some kind of midterm exam for them.
"They’re arguably the best team in the league right now, so we’ve got to play our best,’’ Gallant said. "We know the challenge we’re facing with a team like that.’’
"It’s always nice to measure yourself against some of the top teams, especially the division teams,’’ forward Kevin Rooney said. "It’s a big challenge. We really feel like we’ve grown as a team and we want to take that next step. And if we want to take those next steps, we’ve got to beat the top teams . . . And I think a lot of guys are excited for the challenge.’’
What’s also exciting for some of the Rangers is that the Hurricanes feature so many of their former teammates. Brady Skjei, Jesper Fast, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Smith and goalie Antti Raanta all have found a home in Carolina after leaving the Rangers. Former Ranger Derek Stepan, traded away in 2017, is there as well.
"It’s definitely unique in the amount,’’ defenseman Jacob Trouba said. "But I think everybody’s played against buddies, played against former teammates — there just happens to be four, five or six of them over there, which makes it a little bit unique. It’ll be nice to see some of them after the game and catch up.’’
Trouba and Skjei were teammates with the U.S. National Team Development Program as teenagers, and after Trouba was traded to the Rangers in 2019, the two were paired on defense. Trouba said he has been in touch with Skjei and was looking forward to perhaps seeing him Thursday night, and if not, then talking to him after the game.
DeAngelo, a defenseman who was bought out by the Rangers last summer after a series of missteps with the team, is having an outstanding season with six goals, 22 assists and a plus-14 rating in 29 games. His 28 points rank him 10th in the NHL in defensemen scoring, and he also has 11 power-play assists (tied for fifth among defensemen).
He’s been a model citizen in Carolina and has replaced free- agent departure Dougie Hamilton as the point man on the power play, which is fifth-best in the NHL, connecting at 25.5%.
Fast and Skjei are key penalty-killers on the Hurricanes’ man-down unit, which is tops in the league, killing 90.1% of shorthanded situations. Carolina leads the league in team goals-against average at 2.25 (the Rangers are second at 2.45) and the Hurricanes are third in the league in team save percentage at .922 (the Rangers are first at .924).