It all comes down to Monday night, folks. The discourse around the Carolina Hurricanes’ flawless Game 7 record since 2006 will rage. The callbacks to two weeks ago when they took down the Boston Bruins will help Hurricanes fans and players cope and feel some level of confidence though. That’ll be important – the Hurricanes need that confidence entering that game, luckily played on home ice, where another narrative – their 7-0 record in the postseason at PNC Arena – will also be the main storyline many are talking about. It’s a good thing they’ve been so tough to beat there because Monday night marks the biggest game in the era of the franchise’s newfound relevance.
Gone are the days of simply being happy to be here. It’s not enough to get into the playoffs, and it’s not enough that they won a round. This is the team that finished with a franchise-record 116 points, just edging out the Cup-winning 2006 team, and second-most amongst teams still standing, behind only the Colorado Avalanche. It’s time to prove that this team is not just a pesky, young squad on the rise, but a real factor in the race for the Stanley Cup.
They’re playing a New York Rangers team that doesn’t have their level of playoff experience, and in many ways is that team that can feel good about their season no matter what the outcome is. Nobody in the Big Apple is going to be too upset if they lose Game 7, because they made Round 2 a year after missing the playoffs, pushing the Metropolitan Division champs to the brink in the process.
The Hurricanes do not have that luxury, and we’re going to talk about why today. This team has been in this same boat the last four years, and with a lot of questions in the coming months, now feels like an important time to capitalize. Anything short of a Stanley Cup will be seen by many as a failure. The squad’s regular-season success, depth throughout the roster, high-flying skill and seemingly-impenetrable defensive scheme (when they’re on) had them considered by many to be one of the favorites all year long. Unfortunately, they are also proving this postseason to be a somewhat significantly flawed team. So, let’s jump into what this game really means for the Hurricanes, and what fans are going to learn about this team on Monday night in Raleigh.
Hurricanes Proving this Core Can Get it Done
As touched on in the intro, the Hurricanes are the team that was “supposed” to win this series – at least, as much as any team is “supposed” to this time of year, in a game as unpredictable as hockey is. They largely beat up on the Rangers in the regular season, and, on paper, have a significant advantage in all areas but one. That one position is important, and we’re going to talk about it more very soon, but even throughout this series, it’s been obvious that when the Hurricanes are on their game, the Rangers are not a team that can match their speed and intensity. Heck, I’m not sure there’s a team in the NHL that can.
However, therein lies something incredibly frustrating from the Hurricanes’ perspective that has played out in the playoffs; this team is way too good, they’re way too dominant when they get to their game, to be 0-6 on the road. For many reasons it’s probably been pure coincidence; mostly the fact that the Hurricanes just can’t seem to get the break that may swing a road game in their favor. At least four of the six road losses have seen them come out with a great start, and get goalie’d (especially in Round 2). Then they catch one bad break, be it a penalty and opposing power play goal, bad bounce, or even a soft goal or two, and it sets them back and demoralizes the team. Carolina did have success chasing games all season long, but doing so in the postseason against two defensively stout teams has been a different animal.
Game 6 was a perfect example. The Hurricanes were flying, Sebastian Aho nearly scored on a breakaway, and then Antti Raanta came up small for the first time all postseason with two goals that, frankly, can’t happen at this juncture of the playoffs. You could see the energy shift right then and there, a proverbial “great, here we go again” let out by the entirety of the roster with the way they played following Tyler Motte‘s weak floater that squeezed off Raanta’s pad and glove and found the twine.
It’s impossible to blame Raanta for that game. Or anything that has or will happen, really, considering he’s the whole reason they’ve even made it this far. He’s been stellar in the postseason, and everyone has a bad day once in a while. The bigger concern was the response, and the lack of urgency to shake off that goal and get back into the game immediately, picking up the guy that’s stepped in for their elite-level regular season starter in Frederik Andersen. The Rangers instead smelled blood in the water, and rather than matching or overcoming that storm, the Hurricanes went into a shell, lost too many battles, and ended up shorthanded shortly after. A sloppy defensive stand on the penalty kill allowed Mika Zibanejad to walk in on Raanta again, and, yes, it was another soft goal, but it was still obvious that the team was down and out.
It can’t all be home ice advantage, as loud and infectious as the crowd at PNC Arena is. Yes, Jordan Staal‘s ability to match up with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider is a huge reason for the undefeated playoff record, just like his line was with Nino Niederreiter and Jesper Fast in Round 1 while eliminating Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand’s line. It can’t be understated how important they’ve been in getting to this point. Still, there’s just something off about the way the team plays on the road, and personnel questions are beginning to take center stage.
Martin Necas has been invisible almost all postseason; in a contract year, it’s looking less and less likely he’ll be back in Raleigh. Even as a 23-year-old former first-round pick with a considerable ceiling and somewhat proven regular season track record, it seems he’s worn out his welcome in some ways. He’s not really built for this time of year as a speed/skill perimeter-oriented player, and “this time of year” is what the Hurricanes need to be all about now. His linemates, Andrei Svechnikov and Vincent Trocheck have at least had flashes of decent play, but even they haven’t gotten the job done as top-six scorers the team relies on.
We could spend all day talking about guys who haven’t gotten the job done in the playoffs, but put it this way: the Hurricanes are in a “prove it” Game 7 now. You don’t see the Cup contenders, the Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning mainly, skipping back and forth between showing up to play and not, or messing around and letting teams back in series they lead by multiple games. They know when to go for the kill shot, and they deliver it. It doesn’t matter where the game is played. Nobody wins every game in the playoffs, but they always put up a fight, and that’s something you can’t really say for the Hurricanes in the postseason so far.
That’s what makes these struggles, after all the expectations this roster created in the regular season, seem like a potential personnel issue. Perhaps some of the players on this team simply aren’t built to be playoff performers (not to keep ragging on Necas, but since I’ve already mentioned him, I want to be clear he’s not the only player I have in mind). This game is going to determine a lot about this offseason. If the team doesn’t get it done, again, I’m not sure the changes are going to be minor – especially with so many key pieces up for new deals in the summer. If they want to be part of the solution here – the guys that bring a Stanley Cup back to Raleigh – they must step up in Game 7.
Letting Another Team Back in, But This One’s Risky
While we’re on the subject of letting a team back in, the Rangers were not the team to let back in. The Bruins were something you could basically look past, as the Hurricanes’ former archnemesis brought on an emotional aspect that gives credibility to the idea that the Hurricanes were not going to be at their best. Plus, they’ve simply been in this situation before with a lot of veterans that know what it takes to win this time of year. Getting deep in that series was fine because the Hurricanes were the better team, and I think most who watched the series knew that.
The Rangers, though, are a very evenly matched team with Carolina, despite the aforementioned edge the Hurricanes seemingly have on paper. That one area they don’t have, though? Igor Shesterkin is in the Rangers’ net. A goalie of that caliber is not in Carolina’s. The Russian superstar has been unbelievable in this series, and, despite their own lack of success away from their home ice (the Rangers have just one road win in the postseason themselves), it’s hard not to be confident knowing you just need a goal or two, and odds are their netminder can do the rest. The Hurricanes don’t have the finishing ability to consistently threaten him when they don’t get bounces or create havoc, two things that haven’t happened often enough to date in the series. That’s about the last guy you want to face in a must-win game.
On the topic of goalies, was Game 6 a fluke, or was that the beginning of a pattern for Raanta, not used to playing anywhere near this often? He’s been great the entirety of the playoffs, but there has to at least be some hesitation ahead of the deciding match. Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour scoffed at questions about what he’d do after Game 6 between the pipes, but the mental side of the game has been a huge question all postseason long. I really think it’s the biggest factor in the Hurricanes’ immense struggles on the road and on the power play (the latter topic of which has been beaten to death at this point). Gripping the sticks too tight, waiting too long to make simple plays, and sloppy passes have bitten the team regularly, and from players too talented for anything other than lack of confidence to be the cause of those struggles.
Raanta has been in this league a long time, so the Hurricanes should feel confident in him moving forward, but it’s at least something to watch for early, to see if he’s fighting or struggling to track the puck early on Monday night. If he isn’t back to being the near-untouchable goalie he’s been at PNC the first seven games, Carolina may not have a chance.
Not to mention, the Rangers have some guys who just feel due to being heard from. Scoring leader Artemi Panarin had been silent all series until scoring the back-breaking goal of Game 6, and, Kreider, the 52-goal man in the regular season, has just a goal and an assist in the first six games. None of that will matter if they come out and make a statement in Game 7. This time of year is about getting it done when it matters most, and that means Svechnikov, Aho, and the rest of the gang must prove they can be alphas on a true contender and overcome their Rangers counterparts. If this team is going to win the series, and certainly if they want to have any prayer against the two-time defending champs, those two and others must reach levels they have yet to in the 2022 Playoffs.
Jarvis-Like Desperation is a Must
Sometimes, hockey is simple. It comes down to who gets the bounces and who can capitalize on their chances most nights, and that’s especially true in the playoffs. Still, as the saying goes: you make your own luck, your own bounces. When Seth Jarvis made a fantastic diving block late in Game 5 that in many ways sealed the win (it was probably the best chance the Rangers got after Svechnikov scored to make it 3-1), he gave up the body to stop a one-timer and extremely-high-danger scoring chance. He took a forceful stick blade to the face on a follow-through, and his lip is still so big it takes up about half the size of his head overall.
These are just some of the reasons why Brind’Amour said “This kid, he’s growing on me every day” (from “The legend of Hurricanes rookie Seth Jarvis continues to grow”, The North State Journal, 5/28/22). Listen to his postgame comments, too:
That’s leadership, right there, from a 20-year-old rookie in the playoffs for the first time in his career. “It was a play I had to make” – that is the mentality it takes to win in the playoffs, and it’s something that, at times, seems like the Hurricanes have been missing (especially on the road). They lose too many battles, they take too many wide turns or reach with one hand to avoid contact, and they haven’t gotten to the money-making areas enough, such as the front of the net where you must take punishment to succeed against big, tough defenders. Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren, Justin Braun, and K’Andre Miller are not easy guys to get positioning on, but to beat Shesterkin, the Hurricanes don’t have a choice.
Jarvis may be the youngest player still in the playoffs, and he’s one of the smallest players on either roster in this series. Yet, his heart is as big as anyone’s that’ll be on the ice Monday night, and he must be a player the Hurricanes look to follow if they want to come out victorious in this one. It may take a busted lip or a bruised shin from a block or the good ol’ “taking a hit to make a play”, but these little plays over the course of the game are what lead to good things for a team. Jarvis has seemingly come up with them at every turn, and the rest of the roster must take a page out of their rising star’s playbook and follow suit.
There are some valid reservations that many onlookers have developed around the ‘Canes. They may not have the finishing to win a Stanley Cup yet, or the physicality to match tough teams, or the goaltending to match up considering they’re going to have to overcome Shesterkin then Andrei Vasilevskiy just to make the Final. Still, when they are at their best, getting to their overwhelming forechecking game, and getting contributions from every line, they can dominate even the best teams in the NHL. One of the best parts of this year is unpredictability, and, who knows who is going to win Game 7, especially with teams this evenly matched. It’ll probably come down to who gets the break or the bounce, much like a majority of this series has.
No matter how you slice it, though, the time is now for the “jerks” to step up and make it happen. They’re not going to prevail because of dumb stuff they’ve been starting after the whistles, because the Rangers have probably won that battle over the course of the series. They’re not going to get done with a bunch of fancy passing plays, or dazzling individual efforts and snipes on the best goalie on the planet (probably, but Vasilevskiy isn’t too bad either) right now. Game 7’s are won by teams who have the most fight, the most heart, and the most hustle. It just so happens, that’s what Brind’Amour’s teams are built off of – and that’s why this is a game his team cannot afford to lose.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!