RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes needed to finish the regular season strong to hold off the New York Rangers for the Metropolitan Division title. They are benefitting from that push as the teams meet in a second-round playoff series.
The division title secured home-ice advantage through at least two playoff rounds. The Hurricanes needed every bit of that edge in grinding through a seven-game, first-round series against Boston, with all four wins coming in front of a rowdy home crowd. They open this series at home on Wednesday night.
“I guess I always wondered what does home ice really mean,” Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said. “Well, I think it did mean something last series for sure, so I guess we’ll see.”
The Hurricanes finished with the NHL's third-best record but didn't secure the division title until beating the Rangers in their second-to-last game on April 26. That came after the Rangers surged to tie the Hurricanes atop the division.
“You had to just keep winning," Brind'Amour said. "I think the whole Eastern Conference, really, the top eight teams pushed each other I think all year that way. New York being there at the end when they were battling for us, that helped us stay sharp, too.”
Carolina ended up taking three of the four regular-season meetings with New York, which rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game thriller.
“They outplayed us in at least three of those games for sure," Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said of the regular season against Carolina. “It means nothing to me right now. We’re a confident team right now, we feel good about our team, we just beat a hell of a good Pittsburgh team.”
IGOR THE GREAT
New York's Igor Shesterkin is a finalist for both the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goalie and Hart Trophy for most valuable player after a season in which he was 36-13-4 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, both league bests.
He had 79 saves – the second-most in NHL history – in a triple-overtime Game 1 loss to Pittsburgh. He was torched for 10 goals over three periods in Games 3 and 4 before bouncing back to win the last three games with a 2.93 GAA and .917 save percentage.
“He really gives us a chance to win every game,” center Mika Zibanejad said. “He’s such a calm presence back there, just gives us the confidence to go get the next one.”
The Hurricanes’ roster is loaded with former Rangers.
Antti Raanta, who has taken over the crease with No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen sidelined by injury, played from 2015-17 with the Rangers. The list also includes defensemen Tony DeAngelo — who is tied with fellow blue-liner Jaccob Slavin with a team-best eight playoff points — Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith, winger Jesper Fast and reserve forward Derek Stepan.
“I could care less who the opponent is,” DeAngelo said. “We’ve just got to worry about what we’re going to do here.”
The Rangers had 27 comeback wins during the regular season, only two behind Florida for the league lead. They added against the Penguins, becoming the first team in NHL history to have three straight comeback wins in a series when facing elimination.
In Games 5 and 6, they rallied from a two-goal deficit in the second period. In Game 7, they were trailing after two before tying it in the third and winning in overtime.
“The belief’s always there,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said.
The special teams matchup to wacth will be the Rangers' power play against the Hurricanes' penalty kill.
New York was fourth in the league during the regular season with the man advantage, scoring on 25.2% of its chances. That unit has been even better in the postseason (31.6%).
Carolina had the league's No. 1 kill during the regular season at 88%, though it has slid to 79.3% in the postseason.
The Hurricanes have been struggling to get much going with their power play for more than six weeks. Carolina is 9 of 80 (11.3%) through its last 24 games dating to late March.
This will be the first best-of-7 series between the teams, though the Hurricanes and Rangers have recent postseason history: The teams met in a qualifying round of the expanded playoffs in the Toronto bubble in 2020. The series opener marked the NHL's return to action after halting its regular season due to the pandemic. Carolina swept that best-of-5 series.
AP Sports Writer Vin A. Cherwoo in New York contributed to this report.
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