Whether you call it a play-in or a qualifier, the time is near. The Rangers are in “the bubble” in Toronto, and we will be seeing hockey in the next few days. Let’s look at what will be happening before and during the series.
The Bubble. As everyone already knows, there are two bubbles and 24 teams. The Western teams are in Edmonton and the Eastern teams in Toronto. In Toronto, there is a stadium for outdoor activities, restaurants inside and outside the arena, and a concierge system to bring food and other services from outside the bubble. There are also 15 gym facilities in Toronto that will be solely for the players and personnel. Toronto arena has four locker rooms and everything will be supplied, except for what the NHL calls “high touch” equipment (meaning gloves, skate sharpeners, toiletries and the like).
The Games. Of course, there will be no fans in either arena, but players and other team personnel in the tournament may watch current games in person. Although there will be no fans present, the NHL has promised an amazing television experience for all—an experience with angles never seen before. There will be 12 extra cameras covering the games, in places that could not be accessed if there were fans in the seats. There is one particular camera that will be used that will show the speed of the game in a way never seen before. You also will be able to hear the sounds of the game (including what the players are saying), which is why the games will be broadcast on a 5-second delay.
According to Steve Meyer, the NHL’s Chief Content Officer, every game will have a different look. The league has prepared with each participating team’s goal songs, horns, and music/in-arena sounds normally played (will we hear the “Potvin sucks” chant?). There will also be special theme nights (the NHL has a social justice night planned and others; some of the teams have already announced their #weskatefor ____ slogans).
And, Colin Campbell and his situation/player safety team will be in full operation from the war room (Campbell, Stephen Walkom, Kris King, and Mike Murphy will be in attendance). According to Campbell, there will be three officiating and operations managers in each hub. Speaking of officiating, to start the tournament, there will be 10 referees and 10 linesmen in each hub.
The Rangers. Each team is allowed to take 52 people to the hub and have 31 players eligible to participate in the tournament. Yesterday, the NHL released that roster of players–the Rangers, who decided to take only 30 players, brought the following men:
Forwards: Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Phillip Di Giuseppe, Jesper Fast, Steven Fogarty, Julien Gauthier, Tim Gettinger, Brett Howden, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, Chris Kreider, Brendan Lemieux, Vinni Lettieri, Greg McKegg, Danny O’Regan, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, Mika Zibanejad; Defensemen: Brandon Crawley, Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox, Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, Darren Raddysh, Brendan Smith, Marc Staal, Jacob Trouba; Goaltenders: Alexandar Georgiev, Henrik Lundqvist, Igor Shesterkin.
Head Coach David Quinn said yesterday that this qualifying series “will have the flavor of an NCAA Tournament,” something that Quinn is very familiar with. He was hopeful about the Rangers readiness, but not overconfident. “We are not near where we need to be, but we are getting there.” The Rangers will have four practices, which will be at the same rink every day.
Carolina. Carolina has brought the following players to Toronto:
Forwards: Sebastian Aho, Clark Bishop, Ryan Dzingel, Warren Foegele, Morgan Geekie, Steven Lorentz, Jordan Martinook, Max McCormick, Brock McGinn, Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck, Justin Williams; Defensemen: Jake Bean, Joel Edmundson, Haydn Fleury, Jake Gardiner, Dougie Hamilton, Roland McKeown, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei, Jaccob Slavin, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Sami Vatanen; Goaltenders: Anton Forsberg, Petr Mrazek, Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer.
The Qualifying Series. The series, which is the best of five games, will start on August first (MSG @ 12 pm). The Rangers have one exhibition game, on Wednesday (8 pm, MSG), with the Islanders before the qualifying series begins. This exhibition game should give everyone an idea how good this team will be to standing up to playoff toughness. The Islanders play a very tough game and avoiding injury in this one will be critical to the Rangers chances against Carolina, who are more of a finesse team. Although when you look at the stats you see that the Rangers beat the Canes in all four meetings during the regular season, this is not the regular season. This series comes after a long break that has positives and negatives for both teams. For the Rangers, they were on a roll when the season was suspended. For Carolina, they were without Dougie Hamilton, who was on his way to be a top contender for the Norris before being injured mid-season. Add Brady Skjei to the Canes blueline, and they have an incredible top four D. One of the keys to this series, therefore, will be the Rangers third line, which generally will be facing Carolina’s third pairing. This Rangers line–expected to be Phil Di Giuseppe, Filip Chytil, and Kappo Kakko–will have to contribute offensively for the Rangers to win the series. The rookie Kakko appears to be an entirely different player than the one who left the ice in March. Now confident, faster, and stronger, he looks like the player that the Rangers drafted second overall last summer. Chytil, who can be very dynamic himself, will have to be winning those faceoffs that he has struggled with in the past. He was definitely improving this skill during the season, and since the break, Chytil looks and says that he feels bigger; and since he changed his nutrition, Chytil says that he has more energy than before.
The Rangers have also spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks working on defensive systems and special teams. And they must. The loss of Skjei really hurt the Rangers defense; the fact that they lost him to Carolina hurts even more. Key to this will be an improvement in the play of Jacob Trouba and the continuing development of Ryan Lindgren. Not to mention the continuing production of Tony DeAngelo. Those are tall, but not impossible, orders. Trouba sounds better and looks better on the ice than before the suspension of play. Lindgren keeps showing his solid play and fearless defense. And Tony—-well, he’s Tony—we will have to see.
Which brings us to goaltending. The Rangers refuse to announce who will be the starting goalie. Just yesterday, Quinn was asked who will be in net, and he said something to the effect of “there will definitely be a goalie in net in Game 1.” Whether he has told the netminders or not is a different matter, but it would be shocking if Igor Shesterkin were not in net on Saturday afternoon. He has shown consistency and the ability to make the big save when necessary, which is the most important thing this team will need to win this series.
Not to be dramatic, but if there is one key to this series, it is Shesterkin. If he plays lights out, the Rangers will be moving on.
FYI (In Case You Needed to Know). Gary Bettman will not be in Toronto or Edmonton for this series. He was unable to get an exemption from the modified 14-day quarantine requirement, so any broadcast of him will be from the States. Without fans in the arena, you wouldn’t have been able to boo anyway.