Peter Koutroumpis (@pksport)
RALEIGH, NC – It was a clinical execution of their game plan.
It was as good a display of the style of play the majority of the over-sold out crowd of 19,322 have been witness to all year at PNC Arena.
The Carolina Hurricanes extended their Stanley Cup Playoffs series margin against the New York Rangers to two games on Friday, now leading their second round matchup 2-0.
A 21-save shutout performance from goaltender Antti Raanta was supported by a shorthanded marker from defenseman Brendan Smith, the eventual game-winner.
Sebastian Aho capped it off with the empty-netter as Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin watched his 21-save effort get topped by the veteran Finn.
“Today we were determined to not give them much out there,” Aho said.
“We’ve able to win hockey games in many different ways, and obviously it’s huge this time of year.”
Engaging on the target
It was a shorthanded drive and redirect from Smith at 15:54 of the second period that decided it.
Smith not only scored his second career playoff goal, but stirred things up early, serving minor penalties for roughing and slashing three minutes apart early in the first period.
They were off-setting and didn’t hurt the Canes, but got him and others into the tempo of the game.
The crowd concurred to the tune of 105 decibels.
Despite each team affording the other power play opportunities, neither capitalized on any throughout the game.
“I think it gets a lot of people right into the game – for me probably a little bit more,” Smith said of his post-whistle shenanigans.
“Because that’s kind of my style. I like that because you’re engaged right off the bat. You gotta tip your hat to them because they they kept coming in waves. I thought we took their time and space away and that’s really the biggest thing. And it was good for us. They’re playing well and they had no quit in their game. And we’re just fortunate to get one on the shorty and kind of bunker down, and obviously Rants (Raanta) was just playing phenomenal for us.”
The puck stops here
While recording his first career playoff shutout, Raanta, one half of the league’s Jennings Trophy-winning tandem with teammate Frederik Andersen, topped Vezina and Hart Trophy contender Shesterkin.
With Andersen still rehabbing a lower-body injury and only recently getting back on the ice, Raanta has assumed and now commands in his starting position between the pipes.
Compiling a 5-2 record in eight postseason appearances, he has four wins in his last five games, and ranks third in both goals-against average (1.83) and save percentage (.939) among netminders with at least three playoff games played.
His perfect 5-0 slate at PNC Arena during the postseason leads all NHL goaltenders in home wins, home goals-against average (0.97) and home save percentage (.968).
The transition in role from backup to starter has been a smooth one.
“You know, it’s when when you start playing more games, you start getting into a rhythm,” Raanta said.
“You’re not really thinking too much about what’s happening, you just go and play. It almost feels like when the game has started, you’re already ready to play. It’s like sometimes when you’re waiting for a couple of weeks to get the go into the next game, your mind starts playing its own game, so you are a little bit questioning yourself and like that. So now, it’s kind of just taking care of your body on the off days and getting ready for the game again. I think playing every second day, it’s kind of nice to stay in the rhythm.”
Taking a pulse from the bench
Carolina head coach Rod Brind’Amour relishes the opportunity to see his players be successful.
He pushes hard, but sees their hard work pay off.
“You want to see the guys enjoy the game,” Brind’Amour said.
As a former player, now a Jack Adams Trophy winner, he still gets a rush from it, no matter how much he downplays or wants to admit it.
” You’re not playing the game, you don’t really have an impact on the game (directly), but you definitely feel a part of it. It’s the next best thing to being out there. Being behind the bench with your guys. You may not show it, but there’s definitely a lot of intensity and nerves in what’s going on.”
Looking to idealy sweep the series, Carolina now heads to New York for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Tuesday.