Hurricanes come out strong, rely on PK in Game 1 over the Rangers

Carolina took a 1-0 series lead with a 3-2 win in the physical opener

Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams and the Rangers’ Ryan Strome fight in the opening minutes of Carolina’s 3-2 win in Game 1 of the teams’ five-game play-in series.. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press via AP)

The Carolina Hurricanes didn’t have trouble manufacturing intensity in their official return to ice, hitting, fighting and penalty killing their way to a 3-2 win Saturday in Game 1 of their five-game series with the New York Rangers at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.

Jaccob Slavin and Sebastian Aho each had a goal and an assist, and Petr Mrazek made 24 saves to give Carolina early control of the play-in series.

“I was happy with the way we came ready to play — no doubt about it,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said following the win. “For us, it’s playoff hockey.”

The opening minutes of the game made it clear both teams would have no problem ratcheting up their play to playoff intensity despite the four-month layoff.

After defenseman Brady Skjei flattened former teammate Jesper Fast with a big open-ice hit — Fast missed the rest of the game following the collision — the Hurricanes transitioned into the New York end. Teuvo Teravainen found a seam through the Rangers defense and hit Slavin with a cross-ice pass. The Carolina defenseman buried his first career playoff goal with a shot that went over Lundqvist’s right shoulder to make it 1-0 just 61 seconds into the game.

Then under two minutes later, 38-year-old Justin Williams dropped the gloves with Ryan Strome, bloodying the Rangers forward 11 years his junior.

The momentum from the three big moments carried through the opening period, with Carolina holding a 25-9 shot attempt advantage in a first period that included a combined 24 penalty minutes.

“All those three things were huge for us,” Aho said of the hit, goal and fight. “I mean, starting with [Skjei’s] hit, it set the tone for us.”

The Hurricanes built a two-goal lead in the middle frame, scoring on the power play when Sebastian Aho redirected an Andrei Svechnikov pass past Lundqvist — who had 34 saves as a somewhat surprise starter in place of an “unfit to play” Igor Shesterkin — at 6:29 of the second period.

“To be honest, I had no idea who I was starting for them,” Aho said Lundqvist getting the nod in net. “First faceoff I saw Lundqvist there. So I didn’t know who was starting. I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”

The Hurricanes had a decision of their own to make in net, and Brind’Amour went with Mrazek despite the fact he allowed three goals to James Reimer’s none in Wednesday’s exhibition tune-up.

The decision worked, as Mrazek’s ability to move the puck on Rangers dump-ins helped Carolina avoid New York’s forecheck and transition to playing offense. Mrazek was also part of a Carolina penalty kill that blanked the Rangers on seven power play attempts.

“Our penalty kill did a good job tonight, but it just kills the momentum of the game, and our 5-on-5 game is where we succeed really well,” Slavin said. “So we just have to stay out of the box, and we got fortunate tonight. But moving forward, we can’t take that many penalties.”

New York did get a goal back at even strength when Mika Zibanejad — who feasted on the Hurricanes for four goals and seven points in just three games this season — redirected a Ryan Lindgren shot past Mrazek (24 saves) to make it 2-1 at 14:26 of the middle frame.

With under 10 minutes left in third, Carolina got a needed insurance goal.

Shortly after a power play expired, Martin Necas — a game-day decision after missing the exhibition — one-timed a shot from the left flank hit Rangers defenseman Marc Staal’s skate and went past Lundqvist for a 3-1 lead.

“It was a big goal for us,” Brind’Amour said of Necas’ goal. “He’s got that ability to be a difference-maker and still has a lot of room to get better, and I think he will.

The insurance goal was needed, with New York’s Staal getting the goal back with Carolina on a late power play. The Rangers got some zone time while down a man, and Staal’s shot from the point made it through some traffic and past Mrazek with 1:54 left for a 3-2 Carolina lead.

The Hurricanes were able to run out the rest of clock, securing a 1-0 series lead heading into Monday’s noon matinee.

“Overall, I thought our game was pretty solid and … it felt like everybody was contributing,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s all you can ask. So we’ll put this one to bed and it’s a whole new game, the next one. Bu,t obviously, better to have one in the bank than not.”

Notes: The Rangers dressed four players who were previously with the Hurricanes: Phil DiGiuseppe, Adam Fox, Julien Gauthier and Greg McKegg. … Both teams had 21 penalty minutes. … Ryan Dzingel and Trevor van Riemsdyk were the odd-men out as healthy scratches.