A win away from the Conference Finals, Rangers must solve Hurricanes’ home dominance to advance

On a significant day in our history where we honor those men and women who sacrificed so much for the country, the Rangers look to make some history of their own tonight when they play the Hurricanes in a deciding Game Seven.

It won’t be easy. The Hurricanes have dominated on home ice this postseason. They enter seventh game on Memorial Day a perfect 7-0 at PNC Arena in Raleigh. Despite their road woes that have seen them lose all six games including three ro the Blueshirts, they’re expected to win tonight’s game. At least if you go by the odds makers.

It’s understandable why the Rangers enter this big game as the underdog. Like the Bruins in the first round, they haven’t been able to solve the Hurricanes in that loud building. However, they have one more chance to win on the road in a tough environment. If they can, they advance to their first Conference Finals since 2015 where a familiar opponent awaits.

As nice as it would be to break down a potential Eastern Conference Final against the two-time defending champion Lightning, the reality is they must play their best game of the second round series to pull it off. If they do, only then can we get excited for a showdown.

There are some interesting statistics that the Rangers must stare down to win Game Seven at Carolina. In their history, the Hurricanes have never lost a deciding Game Seven. They’re 6-0. They also have never blown a three games to two lead to lose a series. They’re a perfect nine for nine.

Recent history has treated the Rangers well. In the first round, they got off the mat to come back from a 3-1 deficit to pull out a hard fought series win over the Penguins. They rallied to take Game Seven on Artemi Panarin’s power play goal in overtime. They enter tonight’s seventh game having gone 7-1 in their last eight Game Seven’s.

Something has to give. While Chris Kreider is the lone holdover from most of that recent success with now retired, turned MSG analyst Henrik Lundqvist in the studio, this is a great opportunity for the franchise. Especially in what’s their first Stanley Cup Playoffs in five years.

It’s already been a great season. They surprised many by winning 52 games and finishing second in the Metropolitan Division with 110 points. Six behind the Hurricanes, who earned home ice by defeating the Rangers in the final week of the regular season. They’ve been able to use it to their advantage to get to this point.

What happens at 8 PM tonight when the deciding game begins on ESPN? That remains to be seen. As far as all the stats I mentioned above, you can throw it all out. It’ll be decided on the ice.

The Rangers know just how tough the Hurricanes are in Raleigh. They could’ve won Game One. But weren’t able to protect a one-goal lead after two dominant periods. Filip Chytil’s goal didn’t stand up. They backed off in the third and got burned by Sebastian Aho with 2:23 left in regulation. Then Ian Cole in sudden death.

Even though they played the Canes tough in Game Two, a critical mistake led to Brendan Smith scoring a shorthanded goal during the second period. Carolina shutdown the Rangers in the third, getting a last second empty netter to prevail 2-0.

You can make the argument that they were right there in the first two games. But they only scored one goal. After evening the series with convincing wins back at MSG, they were no match for Carolina in an uncompetitive 3-1 loss in Game Five. The score was misleading. It was brutal.

But in a series that hasn’t had any momentum, they responded in true never say die fashion by defeating the Hurricanes 5-2 to take Game Six at The Garden. A game where Barclay Goodrow returned from a serious ankle injury that sidelined him for over three weeks. He won seven of fourteen face-offs and was a key factor on three successful penalty kills.

Along with a pair of second period goals from Chytil, goals from Tyler Motte, Mika Zibanejad and Panarin, they responded the right way.

It isn’t possible without Igor Shesterkin, whose brilliance in stopping all 15 shots in the first period, made the difference. He was at his best making several tremendous saves en route to 37 to help the Blueshirts stave off elimination for the fourth time. He also became just the fifth goalie to record two assists in a playoff game, and even took a penalty late in the second that his teammates bailed him out on.

The 26-year old Russia Czar is their best player. After some struggles in the first round, he’s allowed 10 goals on 195 shots (.949 save percentage) versus Carolina. Even though he’s expected to win his first Vezina and finish third for the Hart behind Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, a win tonight would be remarkable.

It’s his first postseason. Not even Lundqvist reached this point. It took him until age 30 to carry the Black and Blueshirts to the Conference Finals in 2012. That playoffs, he won three elimination games including a road Game Six at Ottawa and two Game Seven’s in the first two rounds.

What Shesterkin is looking to do is significant. In order for that to happen, he’ll need plenty of help tonight. There’s no question that the Rangers haven’t played their best game yet in this series. Game Four is the one that stands out. However, it’s about bringing their A game on the road in a hostile environment later tonight.

Throughout the series, I’ve referenced the match-ups. Rod Brind’Amour has dictated them by matching the Jordan Staal line against the Zibanejad line. In the Rangers’ three home victories, Gerard Gallant countered by having Zibanejad out against Aho. The chess match should be interesting to watch. It’s Game Seven. If he has to change on the fly or adjust in game, Gallant must. Leave nothing to chance.

Zibanejad has come on by scoring goals in four straight games. Along with Chytil, they’ve combined for seven of the Rangers’ fourteen goals. More will be needed from Kreider, who’s been limited to a goal and assist. This is the kind of big game he must deliver in.

For most of this round, offense has been hard to find for Panarin. Playing banged up through upper-body injuries, he’s found it tough sledding against the stingy Canes’ defense. But he looked better in Game Six by getting in on the forecheck and creating some good scoring chances for Andrew Copp. It’s imperative that Panarin approaches this one similarly. He can’t be afraid to shoot and must avoid turnovers.

Adam Fox has six points in the series to lead all players. The smooth skating defenseman can find offense due to his uncanny ability to find open teammates and keep pucks in at the point. Obviously, he must be a factor. Don’t get caught pinching either. Both Fox and Jacob Trouba, who had a much better game the other night, must limit mistakes.

If there’s been one forward who’s brought a consistent work ethic at five-on-five, it’s Alexis Lafreniere. The 20-year old former top pick has been very involved physically. He has finished checks and gotten in on the forecheck with Chytil and Kaapo Kakko to create offense. Although he only has two helpers in the series, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Lafreniere played a part in a Game Seven upset win. His style is perfectly suited for the playoff grind.

Could this be the swan song for Ryan Strome as a Blueshirt? Stolen from Edmonton by former GM Jeff Gorton for Ryan Spooner, he’s been a good player. His unselfish nature has meshed well with Panarin. He also is always available to the media and makes good observations about what they need to do. With only two assists, you know he’ll want to contribute. He’s most effective when he goes to the net.

What about Frank Vatrano and Motte? Both have been solid. Vatrano had a better first round. He did score a power play goal and register an assist in a home win. That’s been it. A player with a shoot first mentality, Vatrano must be involved by utilizing his skating to get open.

As for Motte, he’s a glue guy who doesn’t always show up on the score sheet. It’s his tenacity and grit that have won over fans. Much like Goodrow, he brings a lot to the table. A good defensive forward who excels on the penalty kill, Motte uses his speed and instincts well. They probably aren’t in this round without him.

Ryan Reaves continues to bring the energy needed before and during games. A good locker room guy who keeps things loose with his lineup introductions and “Release Us Igor” pump up prior to coming out. he’s a likable teammate who plays with that same passion during each shift. The hitting must be prominent on the forecheck. Forecheck being the operative word.

If they want to win this game, it’s important to get off to a strong start. That means winning enough face-offs, battles and getting pucks in. They must be able to forecheck the Canes. Chip pucks behind their aggressive defense to generate odd-man rushes. Play disciplined. Defend better.

Getting a lead is essential. You can’t play the Hurricanes in that arena from behind. They really make it hard due to their fans and the style they play. Expect them to push early. The Rangers must withstand the pressure by making crisp passes and not turning over pucks. They will have to counter.

Gallant leans heavily on the top four defensemen. Ryan Lindgren continues to be their most consistent defensively. Despite whatever is ailing him, he’s shown a lot of heart. He covers for Fox a lot. They must be steady.

That also goes double for K’Andre Miller and Trouba. They draw the checking assignment against Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Seth Jarvis. They must be strong on the walls and be able to have clean breakouts. Make smart reads. Miller can skate it out when there’s room and jump in. Trouba can take the body.

The Rangers’ structure has to be textbook. This can’t turn into a fire drill where Igor is facing a shooting gallery. Keep the Canes outside and box out. They’ll be driving the net a lot in search of deflections and rebounds. The defense must not panic. They’ll need help from the forwards.

There can’t be any passengers. In Game Six, both Justin Braun and Braden Schneider played well. Gallant gave them more shifts than he has on the road. Obviously, Brind’Amour will look to get favorable match-ups by having his first or second line on with Jaccob Slavin and Tony DeAngelo. Up to this point, the Rangers have done a good job limiting DeAngelo to one assist and keeping Slavin without a point.

While most of the focus is on the Canes’ top line, don’t forget about Vincent Trocheck, Andrei Svechnikov and Marty Necas. Even though they only have three goals in the series, they’ve gotten a lot of good looks. The Rangers must minimize their chances. Trocheck has been good on the wall and Svechnikov has missed the net several times.

You know Zibanejad, Kreider and Vatrano will see Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Jesper Fast, Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce often. They can’t be on the defensive in this game. That means Zibanejad must win key draws and they have to compete harder on pucks. Zibanejad is the best forward they have with Kreider their top finisher. They must be factors.

In terms of the goalies, we know Shesterkin has the edge over Antti Raanta, who’s expected to start Game Seven. He is coming off a bad game where the Rangers chased him for three goals in a shade over a period. Undoubtedly, they need to test Raanta early. He’s bound to be nervous. Take shots. Go for rebounds. Get players to the net.

Special Teams. It has meant plenty in this series. When the power play is right, that increases their chances of winning. No sloppy passes that cause Canes’ shorthanded rushes. They’ve already been burned twice in that building.

No bad penalties. Just because Carolina has only one power play goal doesn’t mean they can’t connect. Their power play got enough looks the other night. It was Shesterkin who made the big saves in the first period to deny Teravainen and DeAngelo. If they are on the kill, stay aggressive by crowding DeAngelo. It’s worked in this series. He’s been frustrated. Take away Teravainen and Aho. Keep an eye on Jarvis and Svechnikov.

There are so many variables when it comes to these deciding seventh games. I’ve examined them all. If there’s one thing you hops for, it’s that Shesterkin is the best player on the ice. He has the capability to steal this game. They must give him help to win.

Whatever happens, it’s been a fun season. Who would’ve ever believed this team would be playing for a chance at the Lightning? I’ll take it. If they leave it all out there, no matter what the result is, I’ll be proud.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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