A playoff series that might have died right there Sunday on the cold, hard Garden ice got its second wind in Game 3, producing both a glimmer of promise and a nasty edge.
The Rangers juggled lines and dug deep for a 3-1 victory, and now trail Carolina, 2-1, in the Eastern Conference semifinal series. They mined the precious first goal, which is as valuable as gold or platinum in this miserly playoff series. They finally got big games from their top stars, while Igor Shesterkin again stood on his head, flicked his glove, and split his pads just often enough for the critical triumph.
After two slog-fests in Raleigh, both Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider took full advantage when the game opened into something more watchable. Gerard Gallant more or less demoted Zibanejad to a second line, hoping Andrew Copp could win some key face-offs. While that didn’t happen, the shakeup seemed to spark the Rangers from the start. Zibanejad was partnered with Kreider and Filip Chydil, a potent hybrid of three different lines.
“It was different,” Kreider told reporters. “I don’t think I ever played with that line combination before. But it worked. It was a 20-man effort tonight.”
The Rangers relied quite heavily on Shesterkin’s heroics in the must-win game, as the crowd chanted, “Igor” again and again. The goalie saved 34 of 35 shots over the first two periods and 43 overall, another extraordinary performance. The Hurricanes produced 13 of the first 15 shots on goal and in one span won 10 straight face-offs.
“Honestly, it’s a good thing they took so many shots,” Shesterkin said, through an interpreter. “They were just trying to feel out the game and none of the shots were that dangerous.”
Everything changed when the Rangers earned a power play midway through the first period, a holding call on Brady Skjei against Zibanejad. The Rangers organized a prolonged attack in the Carolina zone and scored a tic-tac-toe goal when Zibanejad found himself wide open in the left circle after sharp passes by Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin. His low wrist shot squeezed between Antti Raanta and the post on the short side at 11:54.
The power-play goal was Zibanejad’s first goal of the series, ending Raanta’s shutout streak at nearly 128 minutes.
“We won a couple of battles we didn’t do last time,” Zibanejad said. “We kept the puck moving and good passing and I tried to get the shot off quickly. I’m trying to trust myself, trust my teammates.”
Zibanejad also set up the Rangers’ second goal by Kreider at 5:55 of the second period. He did this by knocking the stick out of the hands of Carolina defenseman Tony DeAngelo near the crease, essentially creating a man advantage for the Rangers. Kreider converted the chance, whipping the puck over Raanta’s left shoulder into the far, top corner of the net for a two-goal lead. It was Kreider’s 30th career playoff goal, second only to Rod Gilbert’s 34 for the franchise.
Given the defensive nature of this series, and Shesterkin’s typical excellence, it seemed that a Ranger victory was all was assured. But this is hockey, and the goals can at times arrive in almost random fashion. Sure enough, Nino Niederreiter scored a shockingly soft goal at 8:18 of the second period on a backhand shovel shot while skating in from the right side. The puck somehow found its way through a nonexistent space between Shesterkin’s body and flinching left arm.
“You get a little disappointed that you let down the team, you say a few mean words, and then you fix it,” Shesterkin said.
The Hurricanes are now 6-0 at home in these playoffs and 0-4 on the road, though the Carolina players insisted they were not intimidated by the Garden noise. The fans in particular focused their wrath on DeAngelo, whose colorful career in New York did not end well and whose fly-away stick cost the Hurricanes dearly.
“I could care less,” DeAngelo told ESPN, about the jeers. “They can boo whoever the hell they want.”
The Rangers survived a final power play, when Tyler Motte was called for slashing at 13:57. When Raanta was pulled, it was Motte who scored an empty netter on a long, backhanded clearance at 18:37.
The game ended in ugly fashion, as Max Domi whacked oft-injured Ryan Lindgren with his stick and the players wrestled to the ice. The sight of this brief scuffle angered the Ranger players and their coach.
“If they want to play like that, we got guys who can play like that,” Gallant said. “They’re not sending any message. Domi took a cheap shot. You got a lot of memory in this. It might be on the other foot someday.”
The other shoe is about to drop. Game 4 on Tuesday will likely determine whether this is a real playoff series, or merely more, slow torture for Garden fans.