What is the NHL’s dream matchup for the Stanley Cup final?
The NHL Stanley Cup playoffs have been nothing short of spectacular. FTW’s Andy Nesbitt shares what he thinks would be the dream matchup for the final.
NEW YORK — Carolina, here they come.
The never-say-die Rangers have proved their mettle at every turn, as they did yet again with a 5-2 Game 6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Saturday to extend their second-round playoff series.
A winner-takes-all Game 7 will be played Monday in Raleigh, North Carolina
“The guys showed great enthusiasm,” Artemi Panarin said. “They played their hearts out and it was just a joy to watch.”
These Rangers are now 4-0 in elimination games, with a resiliency that belies their youth and inexperience. But to keep this run going, they’ll have to overcome a Canes team that is 7-0 at PNC Arena this postseason and played their best game of the series in Game 5 on home ice.
The odds are certainly stacked against the Rangers. But given what we’ve seen from the bounce-back Blueshirts – who have responded to each and every challenge that’s been presented thus far – betting against them would not be a comfortable wager.
“Nothing’s changed,” head coach Gerard Gallant said of his team’s mood entering this pressure-packed games. “Sometimes you say, ‘Well, they’re a little tight,’ or, ‘They’re a little loose,’ but I just see the same thing every night. I go in there and have a little 30-second chat with them before the game and it’s the same thing. It’s just level, get ready to play the game, play fast, play hard, play smart.
“But they just respond all year long. When we had a two-game losing streak or something happened, you knew the next day they’re going to come out and battle and win. That’s what mostly happened.”
A wide-open affair
Both teams came out flying Saturday, trading chances in a wide-open contest that looked nothing like the slog that was Game 5.
The Rangers went from one goal on 17 shots Thursday to dropping a five-spot with their season on the line.
“I wish I could flip the switch on, but it just seems this building does that – for us and them,” Gallant said. “The three games in Carolina were different type of games than the three games in New York. Why? I don’t know, but we opened it up a little bit, we got more scoring chances – and we also give up a few.”
A back-and-forth sequence led to the first goal of the game at the 7:22 mark of the first period.
Barclay Goodrow, who made a surprise return to the lineup after suffering what was believed to be a broken left ankle on May 3, had a shot saved by Hurricanes goalie Antti Raanta, with the rebound swatted out of the air by Jaccob Slavin and pushed ahead to Sebastian Aho. That led to a breakaway opportunity that was saved by Igor Shesterkin, which ignited the MSG crowd and sent the Rangers off to the races again.
This time it was Tyler Motte with the puck, who finished to give the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later, a high-sticking penalty on former Ranger Brendan Smith provided a power-play opportunity — and Mika Zibanejad did not let it go to waste.
The Rangers’ best skater in these playoffs netted his team-leading seventh goal to push the lead to 2-0, using his go-to leg kick before finishing through Raanta’s legs.
A goalie who does it all
While Carolina’s goalie struggled, Shesterkin came up big.
The soon-to-be Vezina Trophy winner finished with 37 saves, including 15 to frustrate a buzzing Carolina in the opening period.
The goaltending advantage in this series has been stark, with Shesterkin posting a .949 save percentage through six games. He faced 40 scoring chances in Game 6, with 24 registering as high danger, according to Natural Stat Trick. That was a series-high for the Canes, but the 26-year-old was stellar in making saves of all varieties in the face of relentless attacks and rebound opportunities.
Adding to his legend were two assists in a memorable Game 6 performance.
“It’s great to have a goalie whose only next step is to score goals,” Panarin quipped.
Filip Chytil leads reunited Kid Line
Meanwhile, Raanta couldn’t make it out of the second period.
It was a well-placed wrister from Filip Chytil that convinced Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour to pull his goalie.
Chytil had missed the net moments earlier on a two-on-one feed from Alexis Lafrenière, but made his next opportunity count to push the lead to 3-0 just 3:24 into the second period.
“It feels good,” Chytil said. “Even before the first goal, I had the two-on-one with Laffy. He made a nice pass. I just missed the net, but I tried to keep shooting every time there was a chance. As I’ve said many times in these playoffs, even when we don’t score a goal or it doesn’t go to the net and they block it, we still get the chances off these shots and we’re first on the pucks and we can keep the possession. That’s important.”
Pyotr Kochetkov took over in goal for the Canes, with Brady Skjei scoring shortly thereafter to cut their deficit to 3-1. But Chytil, who pushed the pace all game, had the highlight of the night to deny any hopes of a comeback.
He started by showing his strength, absorbing a hit attempt from Smith to send his former teammate to the ice. He then cut toward the net and unleashed a wicked backhand shot that entered just under the crossbar, extending the lead to 4-1 at the 6:47 mark in the second.
Chytil’s big night came while centering the familiar Kid Line, with Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko on his wings. They had been the Rangers’ most effective line for long stretches in the playoffs, but they hadn’t started together since Game 2 last week.
“They played real good,” Gallant said. “Not a lot of minutes. Everybody played and there were different situations – lots of PP and PK – but they were outstanding. Fil had two great goals going to the net, Laffy played really well and Kaapo was solid. That’s what you need from the kids.”
It would be wise to keep that line intact for Game 7. In fact, Gallant should prioritize feeding them more ice time.
Chytil scored twice (and nearly notched a hat trick) while attempting eight shots in just 10:39 time on ice. That number needs to be higher in Carolina.
The Hurricanes added one more goal when Vincent Trocheck buried a rebound to make it 4-2, but the Rangers nailed down the win in the third period.
It was Panarin who pushed the lead to 5-2 with 12:17 to play, getting the monkey off his back with his first goal of the series on a power-play wrist shot from the high slot.