It all comes down to this, folks.
The New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes will meet at PNC Arena tonight in Raleigh, North Carolina to decide once and for all who will move on to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
With home-ice advantage dominating the results to this point, the Rangers are in tough to keep their season alive as they hope to win their first road game of the series. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, failed to slam the door on their opponent in Game 6, fumbling their opportunity to close out the series and giving the Rangers a burst of momentum that could prove fatal.
The stakes are at their highest here. Exactly how we like them.
Here are three keys to victory for tonight’s matchup.
Antti Raanta Must Be Better
Antti Raanta has been a great story these playoffs. A 32-year-old veteran goaltender with zero prior playoff starts and whose entire career has been littered with injuries taking over for an injured Frederik Andersen ahead of a crucial postseason and leading the Hurricanes to the second round? That’s heartwarming stuff.
Raanta has given the Hurricanes about as solid a level of goaltending as they could have hoped for on a macro level to this point, carrying a .924 save percentage into tonight’s do-or-die contest that otherwise would radiate confidence.
The only problem, however, is the postseason is a different animal. And of the five goaltenders who still remain to this point, Raanta’s save percentage ranks fourth ahead of only Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper.
That’s not good enough. Not if the Hurricanes want to move on.
Raanta’s performance in Game 6, when the Hurricanes had their foot firmly placed on the Rangers’ throat with a chance to send them packing, raised more than a few red flags, with the veteran making it only a few minutes into the second period before getting the yank after allowing three goals on 10 shots.
The Hurricanes are a remarkably deep team that plays a disciplined system and routinely controls both the possession and scoring chance metrics of each game. That, plus home-ice advantage, which has dominated the series to this point, should tilt the odds in their favor.
But they can’t win if Raanta doesn’t give them a chance to.
In Game 6, he didn’t. Tonight has to be different. At least, if they want their season to continue.
Don’t Hang it All on Shesterkin
Speaking of the Hurricanes dominating the possession game…
The Rangers have played 13 games this postseason. They’ve outshot their opponent in only three of them, leaving Igor Shesterkin to do some serious heavy lifting all on his lonesome in order to drag them this far.
That’s not to say the Rangers don’t deserve to be here. This team has some terrific top-end talent, a blueline featuring Adam Fox at the height of his powers, and recently have received some crucial secondary scoring from the likes of Filip Chytil and Tyler Motte.
But let’s not beat around the bush here. Shesterkin has been their X-Factor. That’s without question. And while the 26-year-old has proven capable of leading the Rangers to newfound heights almost singlehandedly this very postseason, it would sure make things easier if he was given some help.
Limiting the Hurricanes to under 30 shots would be a nice start — something they’ve only done twice thus far, with both efforts ending in losses.
Shesterkin put forth a herculean performance in Game 6 to force tonight’s contest, stopping 37 of 39 shots while even chipping in two assists of his own. The guy can do it all. But hinging the fate of one’s entire season on a single player is not a recipe for success.
If the Rangers want to move on, and give Shesterkin a shot at winning his first road game of the series, leveling the playing field at even strength is going to be extremely important.
The Rangers’ Top-End Talent Must Play Like It
Everyone knows the Hurricanes are a deep team whose roster allows Rod Brind’Amour to play chess with his on-ice matchups while his opponent can only play checkers.
The Rangers don’t have the same luxury. But what they do have is a level of top-line talent that the Hurricanes can’t counter.
Adam Fox, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemiy Panarin. Those are some serious weapons at Gerrard Gallant’s disposal. And if the Rangers want to win tonight and inch closer to earning a shot at a trip to the Stanley Cup Final (which I assume they do), they’ll need their best players to show up and play like it.
So far, that’s been the case. Mostly.
Zibanejad and Fox have led the way with 16 points in 13 games to this point. They’ve been splendid, with each being a big reason as to why the Rangers are even still alive to tell this tale. Panarin and Kreider, however, have shown flashes of the brilliance that defined their regular seasons, but it hasn’t been quite as often as one would expect.
With quite literally everything at stake, and the season on the line, now would be a perfect time for one of these superstars to go nuclear and dominate a game the way we’ve seen them, particularly Panarin, do before.