By Joe Pantorno
The Rangers couldn’t have asked for a better playoff opponent as a No. 11 seed.
That sentence would not have made any sense five months ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the NHL would jump right into a 24-team postseason sometime in July.
With 12 playoff teams per conference, the Rangers just squeak in as an 11 seed where they will face the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-five play-in round to determine who moves on to the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Based on the 2019-20 regular season, which ended on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s as good a draw as any for the Rangers.
They swept the Hurricanes in four games this season, outscoring them 17-9.
Like he did against most of the NHL, Artemi Panarin thrived against Carolina, posting three goals and six assists (nine points) in those four games while Mika Zibanejad added four goals and three assists (seven points).
It will be those two who will be tasked in getting the Rangers’ offense back up to speed, which will be no easy task after what will be an unexpected four-month hiatus.
But the biggest question that will be on head coach David Quinn’s mind when he begins ramping up for that best-of-five series is which goalie he’ll start.
Rookie netminder Igor Shesterkin was a stalwart in the crease when he made his jump to the NHL in January.
He went 10-2-0 in 12 starts with a sterling .932 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average. That included a win over the Hurricanes on Feb. 21 when he stopped 27 of 29 shots in a 5-2 win.
Normally, those numbers would make him the clear-cut choice to start things off for the Rangers in the postseason. After all, it’s usually the team with the hot goalie that goes the farthest.
However, the aging Henrik Lundqvist, who has taken a backseat in Quinn’s three-goalie tandem that includes Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, has been almost unbeatable against the Hurricanes over his Hall-of-Fame career.
In 46 games, he’s 33-12-1 with a .934 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average.
Despite a career-worst season in 2019-20, he was still money against Carolina, going 3-0-0 with a .947 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average.
Add in his lengthy postseason resume with 128 appearances and 61 wins and Quinn’s decision on who starts between the pipes is going to be a difficult one.
This story first appeared on amNY.com