In one of the last games of the regular season this year, the Carolina Hurricanes traveled to Madison Square Garden and beat the Rangers to secure the Capital Division crown.
That rare victory at the Garden – the Hurricanes haven’t won there since – gave the Carolinas the opportunity to play Game 7 of the teams’ second-round series on Monday night, and home ice could be the deciding factor in who advances to the Eastern Championship. Conference Finals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning. To date, home ice has been everything about Carolina.
“We hope that’s a factor,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Obviously it was good for us and we definitely look forward to it again.”
Very few things in sports stay perfect over time. But to date, the Hurricanes have reached perfection with a 7-0 home record in the playoffs. They are also downright terrible on the road, having lost all six of those games. Home wins include four wins over the Boston Bruins in the first round and three wins over the Rangers.
Every time Boston or New York won a key playoff game in their home arena and seemed to seize the momentum, the streak returned to Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Hurricanes brought it back.
It happened twice with the Bruins, who won Game 4 at home but lost Game 5. They then won Game 6 in Boston but traveled to Raleigh where they lost Game 7. -round series too – at least for now.
The Carolinas became the first NHL team to lose their first six playoff road games. At least they won’t have to play another one at Madison Square Garden.
But a notable contrast came in Saturday’s Game 6, which the Rangers won 5-2 in front of a loud, supportive crowd at Garden, and it could have helped the Rangers smash the Hurricanes’ home hex.
Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin produced another outstanding performance with 37 saves and two assists, scoring goals from Miki Zibanejad and Philip Chitil as the Rangers extended their season by at least one more game. Shesterkin became the fifth goaltender to score multiple assists in a playoff game and the first Ranger to score three assists in a single postseason. (John Vanbiesbroek had two playoff assists for the Rangers in 1986 and three overall in his NHL career.)
“It’s always great to have a goalkeeper whose next step is to start scoring goals,” Artemy Panarin, a Rangers striker from Russia, said through an interpreter.
But Shesterkin’s real contribution lies in stopping the pucks, which he did by shielding Sebastian Aho during an early break, one of the critical moments in Game 6. Carolina home dominance, in their very last chance to make it.
“We have to play the way we play at home,” Chitil said. “I don’t know what difference it makes to us to play away. In the first series, we found a way to win in Pittsburgh. I know they have fans and the building they are used to. But we have to play hard and play our game and not focus on anything else, just focus on the game and we can win the game.”
But there is another side to the equation that also seems to be in favor of the Rangers. While Shesterkin has been completely reliant on his last three games against the Penguins, fellow Carolina Antti Raantha has just faced a potential psychological issue.
After letting Raanta concede three goals with less than 24 minutes to play, including one or two he could stop, Brind’Amour seated him in favor of Petr Kochetkov, a backup.
Raanta has surpassed all expectations after replacing Frederik Andersen, the Hurricanes’ lead goaltender who has been sidelined since April with an undisclosed lower body injury. Raanta, a former Ranger, spent most of his NHL career as a stand-in, but he did well in the playoffs, averaging 2.20 goals, including Saturday’s loss.
But Raantha’s last memory on the ice before he crashes into Game 7 on Monday will be of a bad game being put down by the coach. However, the departure of a goalkeeper can lift a team. This can save a goalkeeper from exhaustion and loss of self-confidence when they concede more goals after hours.
Even Shesterkin lost two games in Pittsburgh and has been 4-0 in the elimination games ever since.
On Sunday, Brind’Amour told reporters in Raleigh that Raantha was “phenomenal” and gave every indication that the grid would be his on Monday.
“Look, it wasn’t just him,” Brind’Amur told reporters. He let in a couple that he would like to return. Just get him ready for the seventh game. He has such a mentality. Their goaltender was also pulled a couple of times in the series. It happens. Not necessarily the goalkeeper. You’re just trying to change the momentum, and besides, we have one more game, so we’re trying to prepare him for this one.”
Brind’Amour dismissed the notion that Raantha was entering uncomfortable territory by starting 12 playoff games this season (he had only played in five playoff games before this year and started none).
“He is not tired,” said Brind’Amur.
Even if that’s true, the Rangers still have a goaltending advantage that could be decisive in the NHL playoffs. They also have some momentum ahead of Game 7, while the Hurricanes are facing off with the same familiar infallibility on home ice.
Whoever wins will receive the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has won the last two Stanley Cups, in the next round. If it’s the Rangers, they’ll have home-ice advantage in the series. To get there, the Rangers must first find the elusive key to victory in the Carolinas.
As Panarin noted, a combination of solutions will be required to solve this intricate puzzle.
“Honestly, if we only had one key, we probably would have already won,” he said.