Sebastian Aho highlighted a Hurricanes three game sweep of the Rangers in a 4-1 win with two goals and an assist. He torched the Rangers for eight points. AP Photo by Frank Gunn via Getty Images
In the end, the Rangers were no match for the Hurricanes. On a crazy weather day in the metropolitan area, it was the Hurricanes that hit the Rangers with a tornado in sweeping fashion to convincingly take the Preliminary Series in three straight games.
Even when they gave their best effort by far, which lone goal scorer Chris Kreider referenced in the postgame interview via Zoom conference, it wasn’t enough. Despite carrying much of the play the first two periods, the Rangers lost to the Hurricanes 4-1 in Game Three of the best-of-five Qualifying Round. They will now go home and contemplate what went so wrong in this abbreviated series that saw the Canes outscore them 11-4.
The irony is it was the Carolina tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer that outplayed Henrik Lundqvist and Igor Shesterkin, who was good in his postseason debut to finish with 27 saves. Nobody could’ve predicted that before the series. Especially how brilliant Reimer was tonight in the playoff bubble at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
Tabbed by Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour to start the second game of the back-to-back after Mrazek had played extremely well in winning the first two games, Reimer was incredible. After giving up a goal to Kreider a dozen seconds into the second period on a breakaway, he shut the Rangers down completely. The puck must’ve seemed like a beach ball. Reimer stopped 38 of 39 shots including the final 23 and was the biggest reason the series wasn’t extended.
If there is a sequence they’ll look back on, it’ll have to be the onslaught late in the second with the game tied. I don’t know how, but Reimer robbed the Rangers three times pointblank including a acrobatic diving stick save to keep the puck out. He also got help from defenseman Sami Vatanen, who blocked a rebound that looked to be headed into the net.
The best opportunities came from Brendan Lemieux, who had three glorious chances to cash in. He played a good game after missing the first two due to serving his suspension for interference. He drew a penalty and was very active. That’s the Lemieux the Rangers will need to see more of in the future. Reimer also denied Filip Chytil, who was moved up in the third period by coach David Quinn.
It could’ve been a very different result had Reimer not had arguably the best game of his career. All that’s left is for dynamic duo Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad is to wonder what could’ve been. Neither had particularly strong series. They were outplayed by the Canes top line of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. Aho was the best player finishing with eight points (3-5-8). The emerging star center took the Blueshirts apart along with Teravainen (1-2-3) and Svechnikov (3-2-5).
Aho had a great game winding up with a pair of goals and a helper. His line turned the game around when they came on following a strong shift by the Canes fourth line. With the Rangers fourth line pinned in along with Tony DeAngelo and Marc Staal, who played 1:03 without a stick, Aho got the puck to Svechnikov, whose stuff try rebounded out to a unchecked Teravainen for a wicked backhand top shelf on Shesterkin at 3:18.
That quick response to Ryan Strome and Jacob Trouba combining to lead Kreider for a breakaway goal 12 seconds into the period hurt. It didn’t deter the Rangers from playing their best hockey. They took it to the Canes in a lopsided first, but had nothing to show for it despite a 14-6 edge in shots.
This was a game mostly played at even strength. Each team only took three penalties. Neither power play connected. With Quinn opting to break up the KZB Line by moving Panarin up to play with Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, Strome centered Kreider and Kaapo Kakko on the second line. Even though the new look seemed to work, they couldn’t solve Reimer. He was locked in throughout and was the game’s Number One Star.
Adam Fox had by far his best game. He created offense through transition and was better defensively. But Fox didn’t hit the score sheet. Trouba also had a strong game with a primary assist on Kreider’s goal while registering six shots, six hits and three blocks in 31 shifts (22:56). The physical play wasn’t a issue for the Rangers, who delivered 39 hits including a game high nine from Brendan Smith. However, that’s not what got them there.
I couldn’t agree more with Kreider, who even took the blame for how former teammate Brady Skjei’s clean hit that injured Jesper Fast set the tone. Skjei was clearly motivated as he had a good series. He set up the Warren Foegle series clincher and went plus-three on Tuesday night.
The goal came with the little used fourth line trapped in their end. Why were Greg McKegg, Phil Di Giuseppe out there with Brett Howden in the first place? All series, the D pair of Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo struggled. They were victimized for two more goals including Foegle’s tip in of a Skjei point shot coming at 5:07 of the third period.
Di Giuseppe played 7:50 while McKegg received seven minutes. Julien Gauthier saw the ice for only four shifts (3:53). He didn’t get a shift in the third and was benched for Teravainen’s tying goal. That means he barely totaled 10 minutes in the last two games of the season. Why didn’t Quinn consider Vitali Kravtsov if he had so little confidence in Gauthier?
A rare miscue from Trouba inside his own blueline allowed Aho to steal the puck and abuse DeAngelo for the goal of the series. A unbelievable move as he faked him out completely and then went to the backhand top shelf on Shesterkin to ice the game with 9:34 left in regulation.
The unassisted tally was highlight reel stuff from Aho. He would add an empty netter shorthanded at 19:29 to put a exclamation point on his series. He was by far the best player. Not only good offensively, but responsible defensively. This is a two-way top line center who continues to improve. The scary aspect is he and Svechnikov are so young.
In regards to the Rangers, they didn’t get enough from many key players. Neither Panarin or Zibanejad had good series. Maybe the layoff hurt. Or perhaps the diligent checking of Jaccob Slavin and the well schooled Canes was the difference. They are a good team that reached the Conference Finals last year. They now wait to see who their first round opponent is in the traditional Stanley Cup phase.
Shesterkin finished with 27 saves in a losing effort. He didn’t have much fault on any of the three goals. His ability to play the puck definitely helped the Blueshirts, who played with more confidence. Having a young goalie who can move the puck like a third defenseman should make life easier on his teammates in the future.
As for Henrik Lundqvist, it’s anyone’s guess what the organization decides to do in the off-season this Fall. They’ll have plenty of time to think about it. It’s very simple. Either they can make the decision to keep Lundqvist and let him play out the final year of his contract as a backup, or buy him out. If they choose the second option, Alex Georgiev stays as the second goalie. If it’s the opposite, then Georgiev probably is traded. He’s a restricted free agent.
I know it’s going to be difficult for management on what they decide with Lundqvist. He bleeds Rangers Blue and has been a great player and team leader. Kreider had plenty of praise for him.
There’s so much more to take away from this season. Even though it ended bitterly, the Rangers were a fun team to watch. They showed character to get back in the wildcard race. Maybe they weren’t ready for prime time. But this too shall pass.
It’ll be strange over the next few months without hockey. Even stranger knowing the Stanley Cup Playoffs won’t end until October. The next time we see a Rangers gave, the weather will be much colder. It could be after my birthday in December. Hopefully, they’ll use the painful experience as a reminder to get better.
Three Stars of Series
3rd 🌟 Petr Mrazek/James Reimer, Hurricanes (4 GA on 88 shots)
2nd 🌟 Andrei Svechnikov, Hurricanes (hat trick plus 2 🍎)
1st 🌟 Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes (3 goals and 5 assists for 8 points)