Unsung heroes fueling Hurricanes’ playoff run

Brendan Smith was the latest Carolina player to come up big in the postseason

Hurricanes defenseman Brendan Smith, center, celebrates his goal with teammates Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen during Carolina's 2-0 win Friday in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series against the Rangers in Raleigh. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — If you’re looking for unlikely playoff heroes, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the place to be.

Especially if you’re watching games in Raleigh.

Hurricanes defenseman Brendan Smith, he of 35 career goals in a combined 621 regular season and playoff games coming into Friday’s Game 2 against the Rangers, is the latest.

Smith opened the game with two big hits and was immediately under the Rangers’ collective skin, goading two New York players into matching minor penalties in the first 6:19 of the game.

“I just want to set the tempo,” Smith said, “play hard defensively. …  I think it gets a lot of people right into the game. For me, probably a little bit more because that’s kind of my style. But I like that because you’re engaged right off the bat.”

He also helped Carolina kill off two New York power plays in the first 20 minutes, keeping the scoreboard full of zeros entering the middle frame.

Then came the showstopper.

With the Hurricanes killing off a four-minute high-sticking penalty to Brady Skjei — a mainstay on Carolina’s league-best PK — 13 minutes into the second period, Smith took a star turn.

Teuvo Teravainen chipped the puck out of the Carolina end and up to Sebastian Aho. Smith joined the rush to create a 2-on-1, and Aho passed through Rangers defenseman Adam Fox’s legs to Smith for a redirected shorthanded goal.

“I tried to get going as fast as I could and find the lane,” Smith said of jumping up in the rush on the play. “(Aho’s) an elite passer, we’ve seen that, and he put it right on the money.”

He’s just the latest player to come up big for the Hurricanes at PNC Arena.

In Wednesday’s Game 1 against New York, it was Ian Cole scoring just his second career postseason goal in his 104th playoff game in overtime to give Carolina a come-from-behind win over the Rangers.

Max Domi was the hero against the Bruins in Game 7 of their first round series, scoring twice in Carolina’s clinching win at home. The goals were the first of Domi’s postseason career.

“The moment the other night for Colesy, Smitty gets a big goal. That’s why you play the game,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You love to see the guys enjoy the game.”

But on Friday it was Smith. The 33-year-old had one previous shorthanded goal in his career, and it came when he was still playing with the Rangers. It was New York’s 2019-20 season opener, and Smith iced the win with a shorthanded empty-netter assisted by Mika Zibanejad.

On Friday it was Zibanejad who had the puck banked past him to create the 2-on-1 that would give his Smith third career playoff goal — and probably the biggest of his career.

“This one’s obviously very high,” Smith said, “if not the highest. … Playoff goals, I don’t have many of them.”

It was also the only goal the Hurricanes needed thanks to another unexpected standout.

In a postseason of firsts, Carolina goalie Antti Raanta added another on Friday.

The 33-year-old goaltender had to play nine NHL seasons with four teams — and see crease mate Frederik Andersen go down with an injury — before getting his first playoff start, a 35-save performance in Game 1 of the first round against the Bruins for his first career postseason win.

Through eight appearances this year, Raanta is 5-2-0 with a .939 save percentage and 1.83 goals-against average. Only St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington (4-1-0, .948, 1.75) has better numbers among the remaining playoff goalies.

“It’s a stressful situation for Rants,” Brind’Amour said. “And it’s nice to see him obviously helping us win games but just for him to enjoy it.”

Friday might not have been his best performance — Carolina suffocated the Rangers, limiting them to 21 shots on goal, including none by Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider — but Raanta added another badge to his playoff sash with a shutout.

“When you get the shutout, it’s a team effort also,” Raanta said. “It didn’t feel like I needed to do that many huge saves. … These are the games you always dream to play and you always hope to get these games and get results.”

While stars like Aho — who added an empty-net goal to go with his assist on Smith’s goal — and Jaccob Slavin have done their part, it’s been a team effort that has the Hurricanes 10 wins away from their goal.

From Domi to Cole to Raanta to Smith, the Hurricanes are winning with their collective depth.

And it doesn’t matter who the hero is as long as the wins keep piling up.