As the qualifying round series between the Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes draws closer, let's explore one significant factor that could swing the series.
Though the Hurricanes possess a deep core of talented blue liners, the absence of key defenseman Dougie Hamilton will loom large. An unspecified injury will cause the 6-foot-6 linchpin to miss the entire qualifying round.
Hamilton's prolific play on both ends of the rink earned him a 2020 All-Star Game selection. The 27-year-old recorded 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in 47 games while logging a 23:17 minute workload.
Right-sided defensemen Sami Vatanen, Joel Edmundson, and Trevor van Riemsdyk will have to collectively shoulder greater responsibilities and slow down the high-octane Rangers.
The Blueshirts finished fifth overall with an average goals for per game of 3.33. While much of Carolina's attention will need to be drawn to the Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad-led top lines, the Rangers possess several talented bottom-six X-factors in Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and Julien Gauthier.
Whether it's Vatanen and Edmundson being tested against elite goal-getters or van Riemsdyk being matched against supplemental scorers, the Canes will have their hands full. By all accounts, van Riemsdyk struggled throughout the regular season and will need to elevate his play.
Keep in mind, the Rangers swept the regular season series 4-0, outscoring the Canes 17-9. Carolina's defensemen committed self-inflicted errors in these one-sided meetings through bad pinches, sloppy zone exits, and poor positioning.
Whether at even-strength or on special teams, the Canes' miscues fed the Rangers' fast-skating and opportunistic offense. The Canes cannot afford to be careless under the added intensity of playoff pressure. David Quinn's young Rangers play an in-your-face brand of hockey and will pounce on any opening. Repeating these mistakes will doom Carolina to an early playoff exit.
In the end, I see the loss of Hamilton being too difficult for the Canes to absorb against a Rangers team that can strike quickly and strike often. While several prognosticators and data-driven probability calculators give the Canes the edge, I have the Rangers advancing in four games.