The NHL announced its plan this week for returning to play after the COVID-19 pause that began on March 12. Twenty-four teams will return to play at two “hub sites,’’ including the 11th-seeded Rangers, who would face the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-five qualifying series to advance to the 16-team playoffs.
There’s a long way between now and puck drop, and many issues still need to be resolved. But if all goes well, and the league is able to restart, here are five questions facing the Rangers entering their matchup against Carolina.
1. Can the Rangers continue their dominance of Carolina?
They swept the Hurricanes in four games in the regular season, outscoring them 17-9. Carolina was one of two teams to vote against the 24-team return-to-play format. But this isn’t the same Hurricanes team the Rangers swept. Carolina was the most active team at the NHL trade deadline, adding forwards Vincent Trocheck and defensemen Sami Vatanen and the Rangers’ Brady Skjei.
2. Could Henrik Lundqvist get the call in Game 1?
Lundqvist was the Rangers’ No. 3 goalie when play paused. Igor Shesterkin had taken over and established himself as the new No. 1, and coach David Quinn used Alexandar Georgiev as the No. 2. But Lundqvist has dominated Carolina in his career and was 3-0 against them this season, with a .947 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average. In a short series, will Quinn go with his No. 1 goalie (Shesterkin was 10-2 with a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage), or roll the dice and play Lundqvist in Game 1?
3. Can Mika Zibanejad restart that crazy hot streak he was on when play stopped?
Zibanejad had scored goals in six straight games — 11 total in the span, including five in a 6-5 OT win over Washington March 5 — when play was halted. He scored 17 goals in 13 games and 23 in the last 22 before the pause. He finished with a career-high 41 goals, fifth-most in the league.
4. How weird will it be to see Skjei on the opposing team?
The Rangers last played the Hurricanes on Feb. 21 in Raleigh, and Skjei scored the game-winning goal — for the Rangers. Three days later, he was traded to Carolina for a first-round pick, so the Rangers could open up salary cap space. A 2012 first-round pick, Skjei played 307 games for the Rangers. He’s played seven for Carolina.
5. If they get into the 16-team field, could the Rangers make a run?
Sure, why not? Shesterkin has the potential to give them outstanding goaltending and become the hot hand. If Lundqvist gets a chance to play, he'll have to be stellar right away, even with all of his playoff experience. Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin are elite players, playing on separate lines. Chris Kreider, who was out with a broken foot when play stopped, is healthy now, and the Rangers have a lot of Europeans on their team who have been skating back home during the pause. Hey, this is the NHL. A hot goalie, and one or two clutch scorers can carry a team far in the playoffs.