RALEIGH — Rangers coach Gerard Gallant was all smiles following Game 1 of his team’s series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I thought it was our best game of the year,” he said. “I really did.”
His counterpart, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, didn’t have as glowing a review of his team.
“We’re not going to get away with that … especially this time of year against that team,” he said.
You’d never know it was Carolina, not New York, that won Wednesday’s second round opener.
And maybe that’s what’s different about the Hurricanes this year.
The first round against Boston was undoubtedly a struggle, a seven-game grind that required Carolina to use every ounce of its home-ice advantage to finally dispatch the Bruins — a team that had eliminated Brind’Amour’s team in two of their three trips to the postseason since he took over on the bench.
In Wednesday’s Game 1 against New York, Carolina looked a step slow with its positioning, a fraction off with its passes.
In game that favored their style — all but 2:27 of the 63:12 played was done at 5-on-5 — the Hurricanes spent two periods spinning their tires, totaling just 14 shots on goal while trailing 1-0 on a goal by Filip Chytil at 7:07 of the first period.
If not for goalie Antti Raanta it would have been the type of game to put the consensus opinion that the Hurricanes were the overwhelming favorite in the series in doubt.
Raanta — the same goalie who played second fiddle to Frederik Andersen all season and then had some fans calling for him to be benched for goalie-of-the-future Pyotr Kochetkov despite having better numbers in these playoffs — single-handedly kept it a one-goal game.
But Raanta can’t score goals, and the Hurricanes weren’t even giving themselves a chance to do so against New York’s Igor Shesterkin, arguably the best netminder in the world.
“We’ve gotta hold up our end of the bargain as players,” Hurricanes defenseman Ian Cole said. “(Raanta) held up his end of the bargain, made some great saves keeping us in that game.”
Outside of the Nino Niederreiter-Jordan Staal-Jesper Fast line, the Hurricanes looked like a recently assembled beer league team in the first 40 minutes. So Brind’Amour shuffled his lines, most notably putting Teuvo Teravainen back on the top line.
The hope was to get Sebastian Aho pointed back in the right direction. The Hurricanes’ top scorer during the regular season had not looked like himself since a collision with Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy in Game 6 of the Boston series, and he entered Game 1 against the Rangers having gone two playoffs games without a point for the fifth time in his career.
The four previous times, Aho had put up multipoint games to avoid a three-game drought. Even one point seemed unlikely given how things had gone Wednesday.
But Aho said the team, despite its poor first two periods, was “pretty confident” in the locker room.
“We definitely knew that we weren’t playing our best game and we’ve gotta play better,” he said. “But we still have a pretty confident locker room. We knew it was one-goal game, right? It wasn’t 4-0 or anything. So we were right there and knew that it was only going to take one shot to tie the game.”
After two hit crossbars — one by Niederreiter at 12:27 of the third, the other by Aho with 2:47 remaining in regulation — Brind’Amour was left wondering if “maybe we’re getting what we deserve here.”
“That almost felt like, you know, we’re not going to get it in today,” Raanta said.
It only took 24 seconds of game time for those fortunes to change.
Brady Skjei got the puck up to Teravainen, who floated a pass to Seth Jarvis in the high slot. Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba tried a sweep check to knock the puck away from the rookie, but he instead passed to Aho.
Aho quickly went forehand to backhand and was stopped by Shesterkin, but he swung his hips around and banged in the rebound on his forehand to tie the game 1-1.
Overtime followed, and Cole’s spinning shot from the right circle hit Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren’s stick and redirected past Shesterkin for the winner at 3:12 of extra play.
It gave the Hurricanes an improbable victory in a game they had no business winning.
“That’s what’s great about this game is you just don’t know who’s gonna be the guy,” Brind’Amour said. “And now, (Cole’s) got that moment forever.”
Carolina might not be done making special moments this postseason. On a night when it looked like it might become easy to doubt them, the Hurricanes restored the faith of their fans — and maybe themselves — by finding a way to turn their opponent’s “best game of the year” into a win.
“I think that’s what makes it special, hockey,” Brind’Amour said.