Bring on the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in seven years.
They welcome a matchup with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions after doing the impossible in Game 7 on Monday night: Beating the Carolina Hurricanes on their home ice.
An indomitable Chris Kreider scored twice. Mika Zibanejad (three points), Adam Fox and Kreider paced a sizzling power play. And Igor Shesterkin continued to stand tall in a commanding 6-2 Game 7 win in Raleigh, N.C. to eliminate the Metropolitan Division’s top-seeded Canes.
“We’re a resilient group,” Fox said. “We have a lot of faith in each other. And when our back’s against the wall it brings out the best in us… We don’t want our season to end.”
The Rangers, now 5-0 in elimination games this postseason, earned the right to host Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday night at the Garden by shattering Carolina’s perfect 7-0 playoff record on home ice.
“This is the kind of game that you dream about playing in growing up,” Kreider told ESPN at intermission.
The Hurricanes could barely catch their breath before the Blueshirts’ power play struck twice in the game’s opening eight minutes.
Fox finished on a late rush from Alexis LaFreniere and Andrew Copp 3:40 in. Then Kreider tipped home a smart Zibanejad pass off a Fox assist 8:00 in.
Those goals, combined with Shesterkin’s continued superiority over Hurricanes goaltender Antti Raanta, immediately established that Gerard Gallant’s group was going to come out on top for a second straight game to steal the series.
Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba also flattened Hurricanes forward Seth Jarvis, knocking him out for the rest of the game, setting a physical early tone.
Raanta committed a turnover that led to Carolina’s first penalty, giving way to the Rangers’ first goal. In contrast, Shesterkin (36 saves) flashed his left pad to rob a Teuvo Teravainen breakaway that had threatened to immediately answer Kreider’s 2-0 tip-in.
Shesterkin is now 2-0 with 75 saves in Game 7s in these playoffs, including his 39-save performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, completing a series comeback from 3-1 down.
“Never comfortable [with giving up chances], but that’s what he does for us. [Shesterkin] gives us a chance to win,” Gallant told ESPN.
Once Raanta left Monday’s game injured at 15:37 of the second period, replaced by backup Pyotr Kochetkov, the Rangers left no doubt.
Ryan Strome finished short side off the rush at 16:19 for a 3-0 lead. Kreider went to his backhand on a powerful breakaway 3:59 into the third period to go up, 4-0.
And even when Tony DeAngelo broke Shesterkin’s shutout 8:11 into the third on a hectic play, Filip Chytil promptly answered off a Carolina turnover, going five-hole for a 5-1 lead at 8:51. Max Domi then added one late for the Canes, and Copp added an empty-netter for the Rangers.
Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren looked like he’d badly hurt his left foot in the second period but returned from the locker room before intermission.
This all adds up to the Rangers’ first Eastern Conference Final since 2014-15, when they fell in seven games to the Lightning, dropping Games 5 and 7 in 2-0 defeats at the Garden.
Ryan McDonagh was the Rangers’ captain then, playing the final three games of that series on a broken foot. Now he’s a defenseman on a Tampa team seeking a third straight Cup.
“Maybe we’re a bit naive in there,” Fox said, of a young roster that believes. “We’re just coming to play, plus some guys who have been through it, too.”
The Rangers were a perfect 3-0 against the Lightning this season, including 2-0 in Tampa. Jon Cooper’s team is rolling, though, on top of their obvious pedigree.
They’ve won six straight, sweeping the top-seeded Florida Panthers out of the second round after Games 6 and 7 wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
Winger Nikita Kucherov (team-leading 15 points), defenseman Victor Hedman (10 points) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.22 goals against average) are the headliners.
The Rangers have Shesterkin, however, plus a dominant man advantage anchored by Fox and Zibanejad. The Rangers scored a power play in the first period of the final five games of this Hurricanes series, including two in Monday night’s Game 7.
Zibanejad has a team-high 19 points this postseason. Fox has 18. Fox’s 10 points in elimination games this postseason is the most ever by any defenseman in a single playoffs, per ESPN.
Kreider has 15 career goals when facing elimination, the most in Rangers history, and one short of the NHL’s all-time leader, Mark Messier, per ESPN.
The Hurricanes had the NHL’s top power play unit in the regular season (88%) and had allowed two total Ranger goals and 1-on-7 power plays in the previous three games in Carolina this series.
But the Blueshirts broke through on Monday, boding well against the Lightning’s strong power play in these playoffs (87.8%).
The Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers await in the Western Conference Final set to start Tuesday. And the Rangers are now poised to take on the two-time champions, looking to lift a Cup of their own before the spring is up.