There was no shortage of questions going into the Carolina Hurricanes’ qualifying-round opener on Saturday afternoon in Toronto. Could they manufacture desperation at a time of year players typically aren’t conditioned to expect playoff intensity? Would the lack of a crowd, and especially one typically as boisterous in the postseason as Carolina’s, affect the team’s emotion? How would they handle a New York Rangers team that they hadn’t beaten in the regular season?
We now have our answers: they sure could; not a bit; and just fine, thank you.
An amped-up Hurricanes squad put their stamp on Game 1 early and repeatedly, jumping out to a lead just a minute into the game and never looking back on their way to a 3-2 win over the Rangers at Scotiabank Arena to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. That lead is no small detail, considering more than 80% of teams in NHL history to win the first game of a five-game series have eventually won the series.
The physicality was evident from the first shift of the game. Former Ranger Brady Skjei, acquired at the trade deadline for a first-round pick, faced his old mates for the first time and promptly obliterated Jesper Fast with a clean hip check that toppled Fast and ruled him out for the remainder of the game. Thirty seconds later, Jaccob Slavin jumped into the play with the Hurricanes cycling behind the net, and took a perfect feed to beat Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers goalie drafted into duty after presumed starter Igor Shesterkin was ruled unfit to play prior to warmups.
In the first-ever official NHL game played in the month of August, at a time when most players would be on vacation, it took almost no time for any questions about the intensity to be put to rest. Ryan Strome and Justin Williams dropped the gloves 2:48 into the game while the Hurricanes were on a power play, and the veteran sparked his bench, already amped up, to fully get into the game by winning a split decision.
But the referees were, to put it lightly, not yet in postseason form. Everything in the first two periods that was even close to being a violation of the rule book was whistled by referees Trevor Hansen and Eric Furlatt, to the point that there were nearly as many penalty minutes in the first period (24) as the Rangers had shots on goal in the entire game (26). That made the power play of the utmost importance, and the Hurricanes were the only team to light the lamp with the man advantage.
It came early in the second period, with Brett Howden in the box for slashing. Sami Vatanen, playing his first game with the Hurricanes, set up Andrei Svechnikov for a one-timer that was tipped in by Sebastian Aho at the top of the crease. At the other end, even without the unfit-to-play Dougie Hamilton in the lineup, the Hurricanes managed to mostly contain the dangerous Rangers attack, going 7-for-7 in killing New York power plays.
But they couldn’t keep Mika Zibanejad from doing what he always does against Carolina. The Swedish center broke Petr Mrazek’s shutout with five minutes remaining in the second, redirecting a point shot from Ryan Lindgren to put the Rangers on the board. Heading into the third period, the Hurricanes needed one more goal - and they almost got it early in the third when Aho was denied by a classic Lundqvist save, one in which the future Hall of Famer did a near-complete split to deny Aho a tap-in.
If you saw that save and started worrying that Lundqvist was up to his old tricks again, a player in his first-ever postseason game saw to it that your worries were put to rest.
Martin Necas wasn’t even guaranteed to play on Saturday, after being unfit to play and only getting in one practice prior to the start of the qualifying round. But he drew into the lineup at the expense of Ryan Dzingel, and it paid dividends. Necas’ one timer deflected off the skate of Marc Staal and past Lundqvist, restoring the Canes’ two-goal lead.
It was a goal that they needed at the time, and moreso later when Staal atoned for his earlier deflection, pulling the Rangers to within a goal again on a seeing-eye shot while shorthanded with just under two minutes remaining. That gave the Rangers an opening to pour pressure on Mrazek with the extra skater, and the Hurricanes’ goaltender nearly came unhinged when referee Hansen blew the whistle with two seconds remaining and the puck still loose, giving the Rangers a last chance at an offensive-zone draw.
But Vincent Trocheck won that faceoff, and the Hurricanes hung on, taking a huge win that sets them up in the driver’s seat to go into Game 2 on Monday at noon.