Entering with a 2-0 lead in the series, one had to figure that the New York Rangers would muster a push in game three. And that is exactly what happened.
Recap of the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 win over the New York Rangers
Whereas the Hurricanes were the more aggressive team by a wide margin in game one (and to a slightly lesser extent in game two), the Rangers very clearly had the upper hand early in Tuesday’s game. Only 3:33 into the game, Sami Vatanen was caught flat footed, beaten and then took a penalty. And just in general, the Hurricanes spent much of the period under duress. Fortunately for them, the best player on the ice in the first period and probably the second period too was James Reimer. The early Rangers power play for him involved early, and he never missed a beat making save after save to keep the Hurricanes in the game. The first period ended with the Rangers mounting a 14 to 6 shot advantage but a 0-0 tally on the scoreboard.
But maybe being paid late for a strong first period, the Rangers scored only 12 seconds into the second period when a quick up from the defensive blue line found Jaccob Slavin out of position maybe watching the wrong player. Vatanen did not have the giddy up to help across fast enough, Chris Kreider marched in and finished mostly alone. The Hurricanes would counter pretty quickly when Andrei Svechnikov fed Teuvo Teravainen streaking to between the circles for a pretty backhand finish. From that point forward, the rest of the second period was loosely played at times but at least more even than the lopsided first period. Slavin/Vatanen had more issues late in the second period but some combination of James Reimer heroics and a two defensemen stack in the crease somehow kept the puck out of the Canes net. Once again the Rangers exited the period tied but seemingly deserving at bit more.
Between the second and third periods, I said on Twitter:
Sub-par 40 minutes so far for @Canes, but they are right where they want to be just needing to win a single period to advance to the next round.
Who scores game-winner for #Canes tonight?
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) August 5, 2020
And that is exactly what happened. The Hurricanes finally found the ignition switch, and when they did, it was quickly back to whooping the Rangers. At 5:07 into the third period, Warren Foegele scored on a tip of a Brady Skjei shot. Then 10:26 into the period Sebastian Aho undressed Tony DeAngelo off the rush and finished up under the cross bar for one of the slickest stick-handling moves you will ever see. After mounting 28 shots on net through two periods, the Rangers mustered only two (might have been three) in the first 10 minutes of the third period as the Hurricanes ran out to a 3-1 lead. Aho would add icing on the cake with an empty-netter to lead the Hurricanes to a 4-1 victory.
And just like that, the Hurricanes are the ninth of 16 teams in the first normal round of the playoffs and the first team to get there from the qualification round.
Player and other notes
1) A different mojo
The one big picture thing that jumps out at me more than anything is how different this Canes team is compared to only a few years ago. How many times were the Canes the team that seemed to have the better of things in terms of possession, shots and most everything else except the scoreboard only to have a better team strike quickly like a cobra and steal a win? That is exactly what the Canes did to the Rangers. If NHL games were scored by who many minutes each team was better, the Hurricanes would have lost. But instead, the Hurricanes managed to hang around and then strike when given a couple opportunities. Better obviously are games where the team has the upper hand throughout and just needs to convert that into a win, but for those with long Canes hockey memories, this team is finally different such that that is not the only way.
2) James Reimer
It is news to exactly no one who watched the game, but for anyone who missed it, James Reimer was the story of the game. He was phenomenal. His best was the crazy lunging stick save to stop a sure goal from going into the open net, but that was just one of many. The Hurricanes could very easily have been facing a couple-goal deficit by the midway point of the second period but instead were even. Despite Aho’s three points and phenomenal game, Reimer still nets the first star for me.
3) So who starts the next series?
I was in the minority for starting Petr Mrazek in game one despite Reimer being better in the exhibition game, and I was in the minority again in suggesting that Reimer would likely get the game three start despite Mrazek’s strong play in games one and two. Whereas fans tend to have a ‘what have you done for me lately’ mentality based on the last game or two, that is not at all how Brind’Amour manages goalies or the players in general. Mrazek was not going to lose his starting job based on 60 minutes of exhibition hockey. And Brind’Amour was not going to leave Reimer, who has been good in 2019-20, out of the mix based on two games by Mrazek. I think the path is more predictable than most realize. Reimer’s outstanding play on Tuesday will stir up another round of debate about who starts the next series, but I will be something close to shocked if Brind’Amour does not go right back to Mrazek. Mrazek did his job and did it well in two games. Brind’Amour will not bump him from the #1 slot based on Reimer playing well, but will be quick to give Reimer another opportunity if the schedule presents an opportunity or if Mrazek does happen to falter.
4) Sebastian Aho
As I said on Twitter shortly after the game, this series made a big statement. After being decent but not better than the opposing teams’ stars in the 2019 NHL Playoffs, Aho and his line were very clearly the superior stars in this series. Aho was aggressive and dangerous with the puck on his stick throughout the series. Aho finished with a massive eight points in three games and was the best player in the series.
5) Jaccob Slavin and Sami Vatanen
One negative coming out of the series was that the defensive struggles from the exhibition game against Washington that seemed to disappear for two games against the Rangers reappeared. Without the smothering forecheck to minimize the need to defend, the Hurricanes struggled at times on the back end. Surprisingly, front and center were the first pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Sami Vatanen. Vatanen had two mishaps that saw Rangers players catch him flat footed and walk right around him. One of those led to his penalty; the other led to a Panarin chance in along from point blank range. Slavin was caught out of position for Kreider’s breakaway goal and had another play that similarly saw a Rangers player get behind him and Vatanen unable to cover across quickly enough. In general, that duo struggled on Tuesday.
6) Brady Skjei and Joel Edmundson
At the other end of the spectrum was Brady Skjei’s play. I am on record as not being initially impressed by his play in his short regular season stint with the Hurricanes, but my impression through three games of playoff hockey is the opposite. His skating ability enables him to cover a huge amount of ice in a hurry and play his way up into play offensively or recover defensively must like Slavin and Hamilton. Edmundson similarly had a strong series. Both also played roles on the penalty kill which was a difference-maker in the series.
With the quick series win, the Hurricanes could now be looking at a full week off which is not ideal. But at the end of the day, advancing to the next round is always a huge positive.