The NHL is going to try to make a go of this restarting-the-season thing, opening training camps on Monday for the 24 teams that are returning to play, with the games set to resume Aug.1. And no team in the entire league could be more excited about that than the Rangers.
When play was halted March 12, the young and still-rebuilding Rangers were in the thick of a playoff race. Their 3-2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche in Denver the night before had pulled them to within two points of a playoff spot with 12 games to go.
Now, under the league’s restart plan, which will have the 12 returning Eastern Conference teams playing in an empty arena in Toronto, the Rangers find themselves preparing to play a best-of-five qualifying series against the Carolina Hurricanes, with the winner advancing to the 16-team playoffs that will (fingers crossed) produce a Stanley Cup champion sometime in early October.
“We were digging in,’’ Rangers president John Davidson said on a Zoom call with reporters six weeks ago, referring to the team’s play before the stoppage. “We had players playing to the heights of their talents; we had combinations on the ice, with [Artemi] Panarin and [Ryan] Strome, with [Mika] Zibanejad and [Pavel] Buchnevich was starting to go; [Chris] Kreider was going to come back — the whole thing was starting to really go.
“And I liked what I saw with our group,’’ he said. “We were really becoming a team.’’
Davidson called “invaluable’’ the experience the young Rangers will gain from being in this play-in series. And there is the added bonus that the Rangers’ opponent in the qualifying round happens to be the Hurricanes, whom the Rangers swept in four regular-season meetings in 2019-20.
The Rangers, who were 37-28-5 (79 points) when play was halted, are seeded 11th in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes (38-25-5, 81 points) are seeded sixth. But if the Rangers had been asked, off the record, to choose their opponent for the best-of-five series, there is no question they would have wanted to play the Hurricanes. And it is somewhat telling that when teams were asked in late May to vote on the structure of the return-to-play plan, Carolina was one of only two teams to vote against it.
Of course, with teams not having played a game in four months, the Rangers’ regular-season dominance of Carolina doesn’t mean that much, particularly because the Hurricanes were the most active team at the NHL trade deadline in February — including trading for defenseman Brady Skjei from the Rangers. The Hurricanes also will benefit from the return from injury of defensemen Dougie Hamilton (broken leg) and Sami Vatanen (undisclosed), who were not healthy when play paused.
The biggest question for the Rangers as they reconvene is whom coach David Quinn will pick to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender for Game 1. Going into camp, that figures to be one of the more intriguing coaching decisions in the league.
Rookie Igor Shesterkin had established himself as the team’s No. 1 goaltender at the time play stopped, having gone 10-2 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage since his call-up from the minors in early January. But Henrik Lundqvist, the face of the franchise for the last 15 years, owns the Hurricanes, with a 33-12-1 record, a 2.00 GAA and a .934 save percentage against them. This season, Lundqvist was 3-0 with a 2.33 GAA and a .947 save percentage against the Hurricanes.
Shesterkin was a 5-2 winner (27 saves) in his only start against Carolina on Feb. 21.
Watching that battle play out between the rookie and the Hall of Famer-to-be over the next three weeks will be fascinating.
Teams are allowed to bring 30 skaters and an unlimited number of goaltenders to camp. They can take a maximum of 31 players (including skaters and goalies) to the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton (where the Western Conference teams will play).
Presuming Quinn brings all 23 players who were on the roster at the time of the shutdown (including forward Micheal Haley, who had abdominal surgery in February), that would mean eight players from AHL Hartford or other places would be going with the team to Toronto.
Defenseman Libor Hajek, who spent the first half of the season with the Rangers before being sent down to Hartford in January, should be one of those. Forward Vitali Kravtsov, the 2018 first-round pick, also will be at camp. He went home to Russia last fall when he didn’t make the team out of training camp but later returned and was playing at Hartford.