The National Hockey League

Rangers aim to fluster Hurricanes in series opener


TORONTO (AP) – As the NHL enters this phase of the unknown with the postseason beginning in August, the New York Rangers are hoping they haven’t forgotten their winning formula against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The teams will open their best-of-five Eastern Conference qualifying series on Saturday afternoon (12:00 PM EST/NBCSN) at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. It will be the first game in the NHL’s Return to Play format.

The Rangers hold a 31-6-0 record in their past 37 regular-season games against the Hurricanes dating back to Feb. 22, 2011.

“We talk about the good things we’ve done against them,” New York forward Mika Zibanejad said. “Neither team has played since March, so it’s a completely different situation.”

The Rangers emerged victorious in all four meetings against Carolina during the regular season, with Henrik Lundqvist the winning goalie in three of those matchups. He has been a longtime nemesis of the Hurricanes.

Petr Mrazek was in net for Carolina for three of the meetings.

Even with New York’s success in the series, the Hurricanes won their final three games prior to the pause of the season to claim the better seed (No. 6) heading into the tournament. The 11th-seeded Rangers, who played two more games than Carolina, qualified for the playoffs based on the revamped format.

Rangers coach David Quinn said he hopes to avoid August surprises.

“We’re getting to where we need to be,” Quinn said. “We’re hoping our youth is an advantage for us, but you’re going into the great unknown. Once you get going … we just have to do the things we were doing well later in the year.”

The Hurricanes produced a postseason surprise in 2019, upending the Washington Capitals in seven games before sweeping the New York Islanders to reach the Eastern Conference finals. That came after Carolina had a nine-year stretch without reaching the postseason.

This will be the first time the two franchises meet in the postseason.

“There’s a lot more focus on what we need to do,” Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said, comparing the buildup to a preseason. “Everyone who was in that room last year knows what it takes. Attention to detail is big. You hope you’re going to be able to get it back.”

The Rangers have Zibanejad, a 41-goal scorer, along with Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin, who notched nine points (three goals, six assists) against Carolina this season. His 95 points overall this season are tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for third in the NHL.

Sebastian Aho leads the Hurricanes in goals (38) and points (66).

Rangers center Greg McKegg played 14 postseason games for Carolina last season, registering a pair of goals. That included the game-winning tally to clinch the series against the Islanders.

The Hurricanes’ lineup might be in flux. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who suffered a broken leg in mid-January, participated in July practices until encountering an undisclosed setback last week. Hamilton, who has been ruled out for the series opener, would have been paired with Jaccob Slavin.

Defenseman Brett Pesce is recovering from shoulder surgery and isn’t likely to play in this series.

“He’s not up to speed,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Hopefully, we’ll see him at some point.”

Carolina’s defensive unit also could be impacted by Sami Vatanen, who never has played a game for the Hurricanes.

The eight-year NHL veteran was acquired in a Feb. 20 trade with the New Jersey Devils, but he was injured at the time and didn’t return to action prior to the shutdown. He had 23 points (five goals, 18 assists) in 47 games for the Devils this season.

“He’s just a solid player,” Slavin said. “He’s smart, a smooth skater and really good with the puck … It will be fun to play with him.”

Vatanen has appeared in the playoffs in five previous seasons, finding a spot on the scoring sheet in each of those postseasons.

The Vatanen trade took place on the same day that Carolina acquired defenseman Brady Skjei from the Rangers. Skjei posted an assist in seven games with the Hurricanes.

The series is a family affair for the Staals. Marc Staal is a Rangers defenseman.

“It has been a while since our family has run into that,” Jordan Staal said.

Rangers left winger Brendan Lemieux will miss the first two games because of an NHL suspension handed out for his contact on Colorado’s Joonas Donskoi in March. Lemieux had six goals and 12 assists during 59 regular-season games.

Other opening games of Best-of-5 series starting on Saturday will be:

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers (in Edmonton) – 2:00 PM (NBC)

Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders (in Toronto) – 3:00 PM (NBCSN)

Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (in Toronto) – 7:00 PM (NBC)

Winnipeg Jets vs. Calgary Flames (in Edmonton) – 9:30 PM (NBCSN)