The question entering Monday night was not whether Rangers could win a playoff game or a high-stakes Game 7; it was about whether they could beat the Carolina Hurricanes away from Madison Square Garden.
The answer is yes, they can. Rangers’ rather magical NHL playoff run has, for the first time since 2015, taken them to the Eastern Conference Finals, where, as they did then, they will face the Tampa Bay Lightning. .
New York won on the road at North Carolina for the first time in the series, beating the Hurricanes, 6-2, to take the teams’ East semifinal four games to three.
The Hurricanes entered the game 7-0 at home in these playoffs. Raleigh’s PNC Arena is beyond tumult, and Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour had effectively used the last line change, granted to the home team after stoppages, to secure the game that he wanted against Rangers top center Mika Zibanejad and wingers Chris. Kreider and Frank Vatrano.
It didn’t work, as Kreider scored twice, including a powerful third-period one that gave Rangers a 4-0 lead and put the dejected Hurricanes’ lead down on the bench.
“We’re a young group and we have a lot of faith in each other,” Rangers’ Adam TNZT said in a post-game television interview. “Perhaps we are a little naive. We don’t want our season to end. We go there with that mentality and it has worked for us.
Rangers were coming off an emphatic 5-2 win on Saturday night, and they looked to be taking that vibe south in Game 7. For the Hurricanes, everything that could have gone wrong happened.
Rangers started fast and dominated the first period, scoring first after Sebastian Aho’s hook penalty put them on the power play. TNZT, the offensively gifted defenseman for the Rangers, jumped into the race on a line change in the final seconds of the power play, and caught a pass from Alexis Lafrenière to put the puck on the glove of Antti Raanta and give Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Then, Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba was called for a high-sticking penalty, allowing Carolina to even the score, but the Hurricanes only managed one shot on net.
Getting the first goal was paramount in this series. The only change of lead came in the opener, when Carolina came back to win 2-1 in overtime. There would be no change of lead tonight.
Trouba, elbow raised, met Seth Jarvis, one of Carolina’s best forwards, in a play that looked like the Trouba hit that knocked Penguins star Sidney Crosby out of Game 5 of the previous series. Jarvis had to crawl to the bench. He left the match with an upper body injury and would not return.
As a result, Carolina was called for too many men on the ice, and the Rangers struck on the power play again, eight minutes later, as Kreider deflected a Zibanejad shot for his seventh goal of the playoffs.
Carolina immediately went on the attack to try to get back into the game, but Rangers goaltender and Vezina Trophy favorite Igor Shesterkin was faultless, withstanding a second Hurricanes power play.
The Rangers, with the second-youngest roster in the playoffs, may have exceeded outsiders’ expectations, but not theirs. Their lack of playoff experience wasn’t a problem and their confidence grew game after game.
In Saturday’s Game 6, Rangers scored five goals from just 25 shots, kicking Raanta out of the net after conceding three goals. Carolina blasted Shesterkin with 39 shots, but he allowed just two goals, allowing his teammates to take a 3-0 lead before Carolina scored.
Monday night was more of the same – score a few, take the lead and let Shesterkin, who has been stellar since being kicked out of Game 4 against Pittsburgh in a 7-2 loss, hold down the fort. And it looked like Game 5 against Pittsburgh, when Trouba’s hit hurt Crosby, and then the Rangers won the game.
But the Hurricanes’ problems went deeper than the loss of Jarvis. They took three penalties and allowed two power-play goals, and failed to score on four power-play opportunities. All of Carolina’s hopes then seemed lost for good, when Raanta was injured during a stoppage and had to leave the game. Raanta’s second string Pyotr Kochetkov, who had been Frederik Andersen’s back-up before an injury in April, quickly gave Rangers another goal.
Ryan Strome scored with just under four minutes left in the second period, flying down the left wing to beat Kochetkov between his blocker and his pad to make it 3-0. Kreider, who beat Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin, added a fourth goal and his second of the night early in the third period.
Forty seconds after Tony DeAngelo scored to put Carolina on the board with just over 10 minutes left, Rangers center Filip Chytil snuffed out any hope of a comeback with a wrist shot that beat Kochetkov between the legs. Max Domi beat Shesterkin late in the third and then Rangers winger Andrew Copp added an empty-netter to put the game away.
For the Rangers, most of the pressure was on Shesterkin, who also has three playoff assists (one shy of the NHL record). The Hurricanes threw 28 shots on him in the first two periods.
Four years ago, the Rangers front office asked fans to be patient while they rebuilt the roster. The club exchanged veterans and bought contracts. He made smart draft picks. He brought in new coaches and new reception staff. He quit key free agents and extended contracts, and made smart use of the trade TNZT.
Players like Zibanejad, Kreider, Shesterkin and Artemi Panarin had the best seasons of their careers under Gerard Gallant, who led the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season in 2018.
After a Game 4 loss to Pittsburgh, Gallant called his team “sweet.” Since then, they have been anything but.
The Rangers, who had missed the playoffs the previous four seasons, won 52 games and finished with 110 points, their best season since 2014-15, when they lost to the Lightning in the Conference Finals in seven games.
Now, for the Rangers, all roads lead to Tampa, Fla. once again, and it won’t be an easy journey. The Lightning have won the last two Stanley Cups. They needed seven games to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs but swept the Florida Panthers, their interstate rivals and President’s Trophy winners.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, their goaltender who has been nearly impenetrable when it counts throughout the playoffs, could easily take the ice away from Shesterkin.
But for now, Rangers’ playoff run continues. And Carolina’s arena is finally quiet.
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