The New York Rangers did something in Game 1 of their second-round series versus the Carolina Hurricanes that they've rarely done this season: out-play their opponent.
Sure, the Rangers have won plenty of games. Obviously. They couldn't have made it out of the first round without doing so. That's just basic math. But these Rangers have made a habit of routinely squeaking out victories despite getting pummeled for the majority of the three periods, finishing the post-season's opening round with the lowest expected goal share of all 16 qualified teams -- including but not limited to the Nashville Predators, who were swept in four games -- and in the regular season before that landing among the bottom ten.
Those results don't exactly offer a glowing endorsement for the Rangers' odds of surviving their round two grudge match with the Hurricanes, a team who finished the regular season in the top-five in expected goal share and scoring chance generation, respectively.
But the Rangers flipped the script on Wednesday night, out-shooting those scrappy Hurricanes in their own building while controlling 51.26 percent of the expected goals at even-strength. The end result might not have fallen in their favor, with Ian Cole breaking the tie in overtime to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 series lead, but that type of performance offers hope for the Rangers' ability to weather their opponent's storm.
And they'll need all the hope they can get, frankly.
The Rangers barely managed to make it out alive from round one, somehow erasing a 3-1 series deficit to dispatch the Penguins in a dramatic Game 7 despite being pelted with shots and watching their superstar goaltender get the yank in back-to-back games. Igor Shesterkin undoubtedly rebounded as that series wore on, stopping 39 of the Penguins' 42 shots in the deciding contest, but he'll need to be even better for the Rangers to truly go toe-to-toe with the juggernaut Hurricanes, who may not possess the top-end talent that New York has but can sink teams with their cavernous depth.
The star-caliber players at the top of the Rangers lineup will need to be firing on all cylinders in this series in order to compensate for the discrepancies below them in the bottom six.
The Hurricanes' marquee players such as Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen are out-matched by the Rangers' elite core of Artemi Panarin, 50-goal man Chris Kreider, Mike Zbanejad, and Adam Fox. But the drop-off between the two rosters the further down you travel is far more evident with the Rangers, who don't have the luxury of sheltering key contributors like Nino Niederreiter and Jesperi Kotkaniemi in third and fourth-line roles which thereby allow them to feast on lesser competition.
Whereas the Rangers find themselves relying on the likes of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, Ryan Reaves, and Kevin Rooney to compose their bottom six, the Hurricanes' role players feature the likes of Jordan Staal, Martin Necas, Jesper Fast, and occasionally Max Domi in addition to Neidereiter and Kotkaniemi, allowing Rod Brind'Amour to win the crucial matchup battle at the bottom of the lineup -- especially when he has last change on home ice.
The difference, though, will come down to Shesterkin outplaying the Hurricanes' Antti Raanta, who is currently filling in for an injured Frederik Andersen and, to be fair, has done a fantastic job while doing it.
But Shesterkin is arguably the best goaltender in the league, emerging as the consensus favorite to win the Vezina while having proven through the regular season just how far he's capable of dragging his team when at the height of his powers.
Through eight playoff games thus far, Shesterkin has yet to reach those personal heights. That the Rangers won a playoff round despite this should speak volumes about just how good he really is. But if they want their season to continue, and have any shot at besting one of the deepest and most meticulously constructed rosters in the league, Shesterkin will need to find that extra level.
He's proven that he can do it before. And if he does, these Rangers will loo as formidable as anyone.