Carolina Hurricanes fans had two main areas of worry heading into the playoffs: goaltending and special teams. Two areas of the game in which the Canes had seen virtually no consistency this season.
So for the team to quickly allay those fears in a 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, had to have felt pretty good. ‘
The Hurricanes struck gold on the power play twice — the only two goals they scored — and Antti Raanta played exceptionally in his start.
If you asked Rod Brind’Amour to draw up the ideal start for his team, the reality of what happened might have been spot on to that response.
The Hurricanes were dominant from the opening faceoff and got to their game quick. For them to then score on their first power play opportunity, and just five seconds into it at that, was the icing on the cake.
After a faceoff win, Sebastian Aho cycled to the far circle and Brent Burns subsequently found him with a cross-ice pass which the Finnish forward leaned into, blasting a one-timer past Ilya Sorokin.
“I thought we came out well,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “Nice to get the power play goal right away. It was nice to get ahead. Obviously playing with the lead is very, very important.”
Aho’s goal was also his 19th career postseason goal, tying a franchise record set by former captain Eric Staal for most career postseason goals. For reference, Aho already holds the franchise records for postseason assists (28) and points (47).
The Hurricanes poured on the offensive pressure and answered the Islanders physicality, showing that this was the moment that they were ready for.
“It was a hard fought game and it’s going to be the same way the whole series,” Aho said on the physicality. “Two teams who compete hard. It’s going to be a battle out there”
The final hit count for the game was 44-39 Islanders, but the Hurricanes had the majority of possession time and still nearly outhit New York. The Canes aren’t as afraid of hitting as some people would be believed to think.
But even when the Islanders had the puck on their sticks and countered the Canes’ pressures, Antti Raanta and the defense stood tall.
“[Raanta] played great,” Brind’Amour said on his Game 1 starter. “So did the other guy. It’s crazy, he made some saves there that could have put the game away for us. But Rants held us in too at times, especially those two in the third right away. The game went pretty much how we thought it would. They made great saves, we made good saves and both teams were going pretty hard.”
Carolina then doubled up its lead by doing the improbable — scoring another power play goal. This time Burns teed one up from the middle of the blueline and Stefan Noesen provided the perfect netfront, deflecting the puck in past Sorokin.
“That’s right where he does his job,” Brind’Amour said on Noesen. “He’s very good at tipping pucks and they’re on that five-foot area. He was good tonight.”
It was perhaps an even more special moment for Noesen as it was his first game back in the NHL Playoffs in five years, a testament to the hard work and perseverance he’s shown to be an NHL regular again after a long stint in the AHL.
But the fact of the matter was that the Hurricanes power play had did it. They scored not just once, but twice and they did it pretty dang fast too.
“First of all we won the faceoffs and started with the puck which is huge,” said Martin Necas on the power play’s success. “The puck didn’t stay on our sticks too long, we made the good plays. It’s all about confidence.”
“[Confidence] is a lot of it, that’s for sure,” Brind’Amour countered. “There’s a lot of other things that go into it, but execution. The first [power play goal], we had good execution. We’ve been doing that all year and that’s the first time it’s hit.”
The Hurricanes were looking to be sitting pretty, but a gaffe pulled New York right back into the game. Ryan Pulock dangled his way towards the Hurricanes’ net and threw a puck on net that first deflected off of Skjei’s stick, and then rode up Raanta’s stick and in.
But that would be the last shot Raanta let in.
Raanta turned aside 25 of the 26 shots he faced and according to MoneyPuck.com, he saved 1.14 goals above expected. He battled just as hard as Sorokin did, especially considering the quality of chances the Isles managed to create in close that the Finnish goalie stoned.
Heading into Game 1, their was no guarantee on who would be the starter between Raanta and Frederik Andersen, but in the end, Father Finn got the call.
“I just had a day by day mentality,” Raanta said. “Just the same way it was in the [regular] season. Usually a day before you get to know that and I knew that I had been practicing well, so I knew that if it was my turn to play, I would be ready to go and obviously I was excited to get the goal.”
Raanta’s been the most consistent goaltender for the Hurricanes in terms of performance, but he’s just struggled to stay healthy. If his body holds up, the Canes certainly have surety in the crease.
That was especially evident in the closing moments of the game. With less than five minutes to go and clinging to a one-goal lead, Burns took a slashing penalty and so the Hurricanes had to go to the kill. They did it, much thanks to timely saves by Raanta, and went a perfect 4-for-4 on the night.
The team then followed up that success with the best display of desperation hockey they’ve had this season to seal the victory.
The Hurricanes will be back in action Wednesday night at PNC Arena for Game 2.