Canes, Raanta put clamps on Rangers to take 2-0 series lead

Goalie Antti Raanta recorded his first career postseason shutout and defenseman Brendan Smith scored a shorthanded goal in Carolina's 2-0 Game 2 win

Hurricanes defenseman Brendan Smith puts the puck past New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin for a shorthanded goal during the second period of Carolina's 2-0 victory Friday in Raleigh. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — This time, the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t wait until the third period to impose their will on the New York Rangers.

Energetic and aggressive virtually from the opening faceoff, the Canes and goalie Antti Raanta put the defensive clamps on their Metropolitan Division rival while getting just enough offense to grind out a 2-0 victory at PNC Arena.

Defenseman Brendan Smith scored a shorthanded goal late in the second period and Sebastian Aho added an exclamation point into an empty net with 1.9 seconds remaining to give Carolina a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven second round Eastern Conference series.

The win was the Canes’ sixth straight at home in these playoffs, a franchise record.

“Our compete and our battle level was high,” said Smith, the latest in a growing line of surprise heroes, who redirected a pass from Aho as part of a 2-on-1 rush at the 15:54 mark of the middle period.

“I think if we just stick to our style, it’s eventually going to wear on teams and we’re going to find a way to win. By the third period, it’s that wear-and-tear. (Coach Rod Brind’Amour) calls it the stress game. If we continue to do that, we’re going to find those chances and it’s eventually going to go our way.”

It took the better part of two periods for the Canes to start dictating the style of play in Game 1 on Wednesday, a game in which they were forced to battle from behind before winning in overtime. This time, they didn’t wait that long. 

The fourth line of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi and Steven Lorentz set the tone with a physical, aggressive opening shift and the Canes built momentum from there, especially in their own zone and on the penalty kill — where Aho and linemate Teuvo Teravainen generated the two best early scoring chances while shorthanded.

It turned out to be a preview of what was to come.

The game’s pivotal sequence began when Brady Skjei was assessed a four-minute double minor for high-sticking New York’s Alexis Lafreniere at 13:01 of the second period. But it wasn’t the Rangers that benefited from the opportunity.

Not only did the Canes survive the penalty, one of four successful kills in the game, but they also turned defense into offense when, with Skjei still in the box, Aho took a pass off the boards from Teravainen and skated into the New York zone with speed.

He then threaded a perfect pass through defenseman Adam Fox’s legs to Smith, who had joined the rush on left wing. The defenseman redirected the puck into the net high on goalie Igor Shesterkin’s stick side to put the Canes ahead.

“I’m not there to score a goal, I’m there to kill a penalty,” Aho said. “For some reason today, I got a couple of loose pucks here and there. Obviously if I can meet the puck and be the first one on it, then it’s green light to go.”

While creating offensive chances is nothing new for Aho, whose 25th career playoff assist tied Ron Francis’ franchise record, finishing them is a new experience for Smith.

Even Aho said he was surprised when he looked up and saw Smith skating beside him.

“It was a great read by him,” he said. “Huge goal.”

It was Smith’s third career playoff goal and the first postseason shorthanded goal by a Canes defenseman since Mike Commodore did it in the Eastern Conference Finals against Buffalo during the team’s 2006 Stanley Cup run.

“Turbo (Teravainen) makes great plays and he can chip it into space, where I saw Fishy (Aho) moving,” Smith said. “So I just got going as fast as I could and found a lane. Fishy is an elite passer and he put it right on the money.”

As it turned out, the goal was the only one the Canes would need. Winning 57% of faceoffs, blocking 24 shots and out-hitting their opponent 31-22, Carolina used its suffocating team defense to keep the Rangers from generating any offensive rhythm.

New York’s best players — Artemi Panarin, 52-goal scorer Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad — combined for only two shots on goal, both by Zibanejad.

When the Rangers did manage to get a shot off, Raanta was equal to the task. He was credited with 21 saves for his first career postseason shutout.

Ranta called the defensive effort “a complete team effort.” Brind’Amour agreed.

“We have a good defense. We have a really solid group back there,” he said. “You’re going to have to earn your chances against us.”

While the Canes remain unbeaten at home in the playoffs, they have yet to win on the road. That, said Raanta, is the focus as the series shifts to New York’s Madison Square Garden for Games 3 and 4.

“This was one of our best 60 minutes in these playoffs,” he said. “Now we just have to keep doing the same thing and get to New York.”