The question that came up Monday night was not whether the Rangers could win the elimination game or the high-stakes Game 7; it was about whether they could beat the Carolina Hurricanes away from Madison Square Garden.
Answer: yes, they can. A rather magical NHL playoff streak took the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015, where, as then, they will play the Tampa Bay Lightning.
New York won for the first time in the series on the road in North Carolina, beating the Hurricanes 6-2 to win the semi-final showdown in the East, four games to three.
The Hurricanes went into the home game 7-0 in this playoff. The PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina goes beyond being noisy and Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour made good use of the last line change given to the home team. after stopping play to get the match he wanted against the Rangers center top line. Mika Zibanejad and wingers Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano.
It didn’t work out on Monday, as Kreider scored two goals, including a powerful, handsome third-period one that gave the Rangers a 4-0 lead and a subdued Hurricanes hung their heads on the bench.
“We’re a young team and we have a lot of faith in each other,” Rangers’ Adam Fox said in a televised interview after the game. “Maybe we are a little naive. We don’t want our season to end. We just approach it with that mentality and it worked for us.”
When the Rangers left the ice after the game, Kreider waited and high-fived, punched, chested, shouldered, patted on the back, patted on the head, and gave each of his teammates a bear hug, keeping his strongest hug for Zibanejad. .
The Rangers pulled off a landslide 5-2 win on Saturday night and they seemed to carry that atmosphere south into Game 7. For the Hurricanes, everything that could go wrong happened.
The Rangers started fast and dominated the first period, scoring first after Sebastian Aho’s hook penalty forced them into a powerplay. Fox, a gifted Rangers defenseman, charged on the line change in the final seconds of the power play and intercepted a pass from Alexis Lafrenière to put the puck over Antti Raantha’s glove to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. lead.
Rangers defenseman Jacob Truba was then called up for a high stick penalty, giving Carolina a chance to equalize, but the Hurricanes only got one shot on goal.
Score the first goal was paramount in the series. The only change in the score came in the first leg, when Carolina won 2-1 in overtime. There will be no change of leader tonight.
“A good start certainly helped,” Kreider said of the Rangers’ ability to finally win at Carolina.
Later in this period the Trumpet, raising his elbow high, ran into Seth Jarvis, Carolina’s top hitter, in a play similar to the Trumpet hit that eliminated Penguins star Sidney Crosby from Game 5 of the previous series. Jarvis had to crawl to the bench. He left the game with an upper body injury and did not return.
As a result, Karolina was called to the ice by too many people and the Rangers hit again on the powerplay eight minutes into the period when Kreider deflected Zibanejad’s shot to score his seventh playoff goal.
The Carolinas immediately went on the attack to try to get back into the game, but Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers goaltender and Vezina Trophy favorite, was flawless, enduring the Hurricanes’ second power play.
The Rangers, with the second-youngest roster in the NHL playoffs, may have surpassed outsiders’ expectations, but not their own. Their lack of playoff experience was not a problem and their confidence grew from game to game.
In Game 6 on Saturday, the Rangers scored five goals on just 25 shots, kicking Raanta out of the net after he conceded three goals. Karolina blasted Shesterkin with 39 shots, but he only conceded two goals, allowing his teammates to go 3-0 up before Karolina scored.
Monday night was like the same thing: score a few, take the lead and let Shesterkin, who has been stellar ever since he was kicked out of Game 4 vs. Pittsburgh on a 7-2 loss, hold the fort. And it was like Game 5 against Pittsburgh when a Trumpet hit Crosby and then the Rangers won the game.
But the Hurricanes’ problems ran deeper than the loss of Jarvis. They took three penalties and conceded two powerplay goals and failed to score four powerplay opportunities. All hope for Carolina then seemed lost forever when Raanta was injured on a save and forced to leave the game. Piotr Kochetkov, the second player behind Raanta, who was Frederik Andersen’s understudy until the April injury, quickly conceded another Rangers goal.
Ryan Strome scored with just under four minutes left in the second period, flying down the left flank and beating Kochetkov between his blocker and the rubber to make it 3-0. Kreider, after beating Carolina defenseman Jacob Slavin, added a fourth goal and his second goal early in the third.
40 seconds after Tony DeAngelo scored and put Karolina on the board with 10 minutes to go, Rangers center Philip Chitil deflected the comeback with a wrist strike that hit Kochetkov between the legs. Max Domi scored against Shesterkin late in the third, then Rangers winger Andrew Kopp scored into an empty net, putting the game out of reach.
For the Rangers, the biggest pressure was on Shesterkin, who also has three assists in the playoffs (one short of the NHL record for goaltenders in a single playoff). The Hurricanes hit him with 28 shots in his first two periods.
Four years ago, the Rangers front office asked fans to be patient while they rebuilt the roster. The club traded veterans and bought out contracts. He made a smart pick in the draft. This resulted in new coaches and new front office staff. He re-signed key free agents and extended contracts, and used the trade deadline wisely.
Players such as Zibanejad, Kreider, Shesterkin and Artemi Panarin had the best seasons under coach Gerard Gallant, who led the Vegas Golden Knights to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals in his first season.
After losing to Pittsburgh in Game 4, Gallant called his team “soft”. Since then, this has not been the case at all.
“We’re not perfect, but we find ways to win,” Gallant said after the game. “Everyone played their part very well.”
The Rangers, having missed the playoffs in the previous four seasons, won 52 games and finished with 110 points, their best season since 2014-15 when they lost to Lightning in the Conference Finals in seven games.
Now for the Rangers, starting Wednesday at Garden, all roads lead to Tampa, Florida, once again, and it won’t be an easy ride. The Lightning have won the last two Stanley Cups. It took them seven games to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they beat the Florida Panthers, their interstate rivals and the winners of the President’s Trophy.
Andrey Vasilevskiy, their goaltender, who was almost impenetrable throughout the playoffs, could easily deflect the ice from Shesterkin.
But for now, the Rangers playoff streak continues. And finally, the arena of Carolina became quiet.