The Hurricanes built their record-setting regular season on a few key pillars: balanced scoring, ferocious penalty killing and timely goaltending.
So it was fitting that those three things were instrumental in their 4-3 win over the Rangers on Tuesday in New York.
Carolina got goals from four different players, was a perfect 3-for-3 on the penalty kill and rookie goalie Pyotr Kochetkov won for the third time in four nights as the Hurricanes clinched the Metropolitan Division and set new franchise records for wins and points in a season.
“I think you probably need to take a minute and just realize that it’s been a pretty darn good year,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We’ve done what we wanted to do. I think what’s great is guys aren’t really that excited about it. We know that there’s bigger things that we’re trying to accomplish.”
As it has been much of the season, it was the penalty kill that delivered at a key juncture.
The Hurricanes killed off six minutes of penalties in 7:09 of ice time spanning across the first and second periods, limiting the Rangers to four shots on goal.
“That’s totally the game,” Brind’Amour said. “It is the game for me because they get one there, everything changes. The crowd gets into it, we’re behind the eight ball — the game’s totally different. So that was a crucial part of the game.”
Ninety-eight seconds later, Carolina took a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
It started with Brady Skjei using a tight gap to force a neutral zone turnover and get the puck back into the Rangers zone.
He then got the puck back at the top of the right circle and passed to Vincent Trocheck below the other dot for a one-timer that gave Carolina a 1-0 lead at 7:05 of the second period.
Another former Rangers player then got involved when Derek Stepan ripped a one-timer from the right circle that grazed Jordan Martinook for a 2-0 lead at 13:48.
“It got me in the big bicep,” Martinook joked of his fifth goal of the season.
New York answered just over three minutes later when, after a dominant shift in the Rangers zone, Seth Jarvis turned the puck over and the puck went the other way. Frank Vatrano pushed the puck ahead to Chris Kreider, who scored his 52nd goal of the season at 16:56 to halve the lead.
But the Hurricanes extended the lead back to two 83 seconds later when Teuvo Teravainen called his own number on a 2-on-1 and beat Igor Shesterkin (31 saves) for his 100th goal with Carolina at 18:19 of the middle frame.
The Hurricanes jumped right back on the gas in the third, scoring their second 4-on-4 goal of the season when Sebastian Aho got his 37th of the season by pouncing on a loose puck and firing it past Shesterkin just 32 seconds into the third period to extend the lead to 4-1.
Shortly after, Kochetkov (31 saves) took the spotlight with a Dominik Hasek-like display, making an acrobatic toe save before shedding his stick and flopping on the ice to keep the Rangers from regaining momentum.
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“He’s just got confidence,” Skjei said of Kochetkov. “He’s got a little swagger to him that I think you need as a goalie, especially with the way he’s been kind of thrown into the game. So it’s been great, and he’s done a really good job for us.”
New York goals by Jacob Trouba and Alexis Lafreniere in the final seven minutes made things interesting, but Carolina wound down the clock to clinch their first Metropolitan Division title and set new team records with 53 wins and 114 points — breaking the marks held by the 2005-06 team captained by Brind’Amour that won the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup.
“It’s just it’s kind of hard to be too excited about it because nobody’s really going to care about this,” Brind’Amour said with eyes, as always, on the ultimate goal. “It’s all about the next phase.”
Carolina will have one more game — at home Thursday against the Devils — before shifting its focus to the postseason. The Bruins, who eliminated the Hurricanes in the 2019 and 2020 playoffs, are the likely first-round opponent. Boston trails Tampa Bay by three points for third place in the Atlantic Division with each team having two games remaining.
If the Bruins catch the Lightning, Tampa Bay — which knocked out the Hurricanes in last year’s postseason — would fall to the first wild card spot and face Carolina in the opening round. Either way, Games 1 and 2 of that series will be at PNC Arena, as will a potential second-round series now that the Hurricanes are division champs.
“When I first came here, to make the playoffs, that was the pinnacle for that year,” Martinook said. “And now it’s division champs two years in a row. … The standard has been set, and obviously we’re looking forward to the next chapter here.”
Notes: Teravainen finished with seven shots, one shy of his career high. … Skjei had two assists, the eighth time this season he has had a multipoint game. His previous high was five multipoint games in 2016-17. … Jarvis matched a career high with six shots on goal. … Kotchetkov is now 3-0-0 with a .902 save percentage and 2.42 goals-against average in the NHL.