The home team has won each game in a second-round series that returns to Raleigh, N.C., on Monday with a berth in the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning up for grabs.
In one of the last regular-season games of the year, the Carolina Hurricanes traveled to Madison Square Garden and beat the Rangers, securing the Metropolitan Division crown.
That rare victory at the Garden — the Hurricanes have not won there since — created the opportunity for Carolina to host Game 7 of the teams’ second-round series on Monday night, and home ice could be the decisive factor in who advances to the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. To date, home ice has been everything, where Carolina is concerned.
“We hope it’s a factor,” Hurricanes Coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Obviously, it’s been good for us, and we’re counting on it again, for sure.”
Very few things in sports remain perfect over time. But to date, the Hurricanes have achieved perfection with a 7-0 home record in the playoffs. They are also perfectly horrible on the road, losing all six of those games. The home wins include four against the Boston Bruins in the first round and three against the Rangers.
Every time Boston or New York won a key playoff game at their home arena and appeared to seize the momentum, the series shifted back to Raleigh, N.C., where the Hurricanes snatched it back.
It happened twice with the Bruins, who won Game 4 at home, only to lose Game 5. Then they won Game 6 in Boston, only to go to Raleigh, where they lost Game 7. The pattern has held for the Rangers in their second-round series, too — at least, so far.
Carolina became the first N.H.L. team to lose six road playoff games. At least they will not have to play another one at Madison Square Garden.
But a notable contrast emerged in Saturday’s Game 6, which the Rangers won, 5-2, in front of a loud, supportive crowd at the Garden, and it could help the Rangers smash the Hurricanes’ home hex.
Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin provided another standout performance with 37 saves and two assists, on goals by Mika Zibanejad and Filip Chytil, as the Rangers extended their season at least one more game. Shesterkin became the fifth goaltender to record multiple assists in a playoff game and the first Ranger with three in one postseason (John Vanbiesbrouck had two in 1986 and three overall).
“It’s always great to have a goalie whose next step is to start scoring goals,” Artemi Panarin, a Rangers forward from Russia, said through an interpreter.
But Shesterkin’s real contribution is stopping pucks, which he did by walling off Sebastian Aho on an early breakaway, one of the critical moments of Game 6. Shesterkin has been bedrock for the Rangers, and a primary reason the team feels confident it can finally end Carolina’s home domination, in their very last chance to do so.
“We have to play how we play at home,” Chytil said. “I don’t know what the difference for us is to play on the road. In the first series, we found a way to win in Pittsburgh. I know they have the fans and the building they are used to. But we have to play hard and play our game and don’t focus on any other thing, just focus on the game and we can win the game.”
But there is another side to that equation that would also seem to favor the Rangers. While Shesterkin has been utterly dependable dating back to the final three games against the Penguins, his Carolina counterpart, Antti Raanta, just hit a potential psychological snag.
After Raanta allowed three goals less than 24 minutes into the game, including one or two that he could have saved, Brind’Amour sat him down in favor of Pyotr Kochetkov, the backup to the backup.
Raanta has played beyond expectations since stepping in for Frederik Andersen, the Hurricanes’ lead goalie, who has been sidelined since April with an undisclosed lower-body injury. Raanta, a former Ranger, has spent most of his N.H.L. career as a backup, but he has played well in the playoffs, posting a 2.20 goals-against average, including Saturday’s loss.
But Raanta’s last memory on the ice before he skates out for Game 7 Monday will be a bad game in which his coach sat him down. Still, taking a goalie out can lift a team. It can save the goalie from exhaustion and from the confidence-draining experience of conceding more goals on an off night.
Even Shesterkin was pulled in two games in Pittsburgh, and since then he has gone 4-0 in elimination games.
Brind’Amour told reporters in Raleigh on Sunday that Raanta has been “phenomenal,” and gave every indication that the net would be his on Monday.
“Listen, it wasn’t all on him,” Brind’Amour told reporters. “He let in a couple he’d like to have back. Just get him ready for a Game 7. That’s kind of the mentality. Their goalie got pulled a couple of times, too, in series. It happens. It’s not necessarily on the goalie. You’re just trying to change the momentum, and also, we have another game, so trying to get him ready for that one.”
Brind’Amour dismissed the notion that Raanta entered uncomfortable territory by starting 12 playoff games this season (he had played in only five playoff games before this year, and did not start any of them).
“He’s not tired,” Brind’Amour said.
Even if true, the Rangers still have the goalie advantage, which can be decisive in the N.H.L. playoffs. They also possess some momentum going into Game 7, while the Hurricanes counter with that familiar, home-ice infallibility.
Whoever wins will get the Tampa Bay Lightning, who’ve won the last two Stanley Cups, in the next round. If it is the Rangers, then they will have home-ice advantage in the series. To get there, the Rangers must first discover that elusive key to winning in Carolina.
As Panarin pointed out, it will take a combination of solutions to solve this confounding puzzle.
“To be honest, if we had just one key, we probably would have won by now,” he said.