The question entering Monday night wasn’t whether the Rangers could win an elimination game or a high-stakes Game 7; it was whether they could beat the Carolina Hurricanes away from Madison Square Garden.
The answer is yes they can. The Rangers’ rather magical N.H.L. playoff run has, for the first time since 2015, carried them into the Eastern Conference finals, where, as they did then, they will play the Tampa Bay Lightning.
New York won on the road in North Carolina for the first time in the series, beating the Hurricanes, 6-2, to win the teams’ East semifinal bout four games to three.
The Hurricanes entered the game 7-0 at home in these playoffs. PNC Arena in Raleigh is beyond boisterous, and Carolina Coach Rod Brind’Amour had effectively used the last line change, granted to the home team after stoppages of play, to get the matchup he wanted against the Rangers’ top line of center Mika Zibanejad and wingers Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano.
It didn’t work Monday, as Kreider scored two goals, including a powerful, third-period beauty that put the Rangers ahead 4-0 and had the despondent Hurricanes hanging their heads on the bench.
“We’re a young group and we have a lot of faith in each other,” the Rangers’ Adam Fox said in a television interview after the game. “Maybe we’re a little naïve. We don’t want our season to end. We just go into it with that mentality and it’s worked for us.”
As the Rangers filed off the ice after the game, Kreider waited and high-fived, fist-bumped, chest-bumped, shoulder-thumped, head-rubbed and bear-hugged each of his teammates, saving the biggest embrace for Zibanejad.
The Rangers were coming off an emphatic 5-2 win on Saturday night, and they seemed to bring that vibe south into Game 7. For the Hurricanes, everything that could have gone wrong did.
The Rangers started fast and dominated the first period, scoring first after Sebastian Aho’s hooking penalty put them on the power play. Fox, the Rangers’ offensively gifted defenseman, jumped into the rush on a line change in the waning seconds of the power play, and snapped up a pass from Alexis Lafrenière to put the puck over Antti Raanta’s glove and give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Then Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba was called for a high-sticking penalty, allowing Carolina a chance to even the score, but the Hurricanes managed only one shot on net.
Getting the first goal was paramount in the series. The only lead change occurred in the opening game, when Carolina came back to win 2-1 in overtime. There would be no lead change this night.
“Having a good start certainly helped,” Kreider said of the Rangers’ ability to finally win at Carolina.
Later in the period, Trouba, his elbow lifted high, ran into Seth Jarvis, a top Carolina forward, in a play that looked similar to Trouba’s hit that took the Penguins star Sidney Crosby out of Game 5 in 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, Carolina was called for too many men on the ice, and the Rangers struck again on the power play, eight minutes into the period, as Kreider deflected a shot from Zibanejad for his seventh goal of the playoffs.
Carolina went on the attack immediately to try to get back into the game, but Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ goalie and the Vezina Trophy favorite, was flawless, withstanding a second Hurricanes power play.
The Rangers, with the second-youngest roster in the playoffs, may have surpassed outsiders’ expectations, but not their own. Their lack of playoff experience has not been an issue, and their confidence has grown, game after game.
In Game 6 on Saturday, the Rangers scored five goals on just 25 shots, chasing Raanta from the net after he conceded three goals. Carolina blasted Shesterkin with 39 shots, but he gave up only two goals, allowing his teammates to build a 3-0 lead before Carolina scored.
Monday night felt like more of the same — score a few, get the lead, and let Shesterkin, who has been stellar since he was chased from Game 4 against Pittsburgh in a 7-2 loss, hold down the fort. And it bore a resemblance to Game 5 against Pittsburgh, when Trouba’s hit injured Crosby, and then the Rangers won the game.
But the Hurricanes’ problems went deeper than losing Jarvis. They took three penalties and allowed two power play goals, and failed to score on four power play opportunities. All of Carolina’s hope then seemed lost for good, when Raanta suffered an injury while making a save, and had to leave the game. Pyotr Kochetkov, second-string to Raanta — who had been Frederik Andersen’s backup before an April injury — quickly allowed another Rangers 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 pad to make it 3-0. Kreider, blowing past Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin, added a fourth goal and his second of the night early in the third.
Forty seconds after Tony DeAngelo scored to put Carolina on the board with a little more than 10 minutes remaining, Rangers center Filip Chytil chilled a comeback with a wrist shot that beat Kochetkov between the legs. Max Domi scored on Shesterkin late in the third, then Rangers winger Andrew Copp added an empty-net goal to put the game out of reach.
For the Rangers, most of the pressure was on Shesterkin, who also has three assists in the playoffs (one short of the N.H.L. record for a goalie in a single postseason). The Hurricanes threw 28 shots at him through the first two periods.
Four years ago, the Rangers’ front office asked fans to be patient while it rebuilt the roster. The club traded veterans and bought out contracts. It made smart draft picks. It brought in new coaches and a new front office staff. It resigned key free agents and extended contracts, and made smart use of the trade deadline.
Players like Zibanejad, Kreider, Shesterkin, and Artemi Panarin have had career-best seasons under Coach Gerard Gallant, who took the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to the 2018 Stanley Cup finals in their inaugural season.
After a Game 4 loss to Pittsburgh, Gallant called his team “soft.” Since then, they have been anything but.
“We’re not perfect but we find ways to win,” Gallant said after the game. “Everybody played their role perfectly.”
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, starting Wednesday at the Garden, all roads lead to and from Tampa, Fla., once again, and it won’t be an easy trip. 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 cross-state rivals and winners of the President’s Trophy.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, their goalie who has been all but impenetrable when it matters throughout the playoffs, could easily tilt the ice away from Shesterkin.
But for now, the Rangers’ playoff run continues. And Carolina’s arena is finally quiet.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism