It has taken four games, the last two at the Garden punctuated by exclamation points, for the Rangers to shatter the myth of Carolina superiority.
Now the Blueshirts have to win a game in the Hurricanes’ fortress in Raleigh. It would be foolish to bet against them.
“I think the never-die mentality has been in this team from Day 1 and I’ve kind of felt that since walking in a couple of months ago,” deadline-acquisition Andrew Copp said following the Rangers’ 4-1 Game 4 triumph at the Garden on Tuesday that squared the conference semis at two-all. “There’s a lot of belief and confidence in there, for sure.”
This was as complete a performance as the Rangers have demonstrated through this tournament in which they rallied from 3-1 down against the Penguins and now have come back from 2-0 down against Carolina.
They get their shot to take their first series lead of the playoffs in Game 5 on Thursday in Raleigh, where the Hurricanes are 6-0 this postseason, 14-3 in their last 17 postseason matches, but never could shake the Blueshirts in either of the first two games that were decided by 2-1 in overtime and 2-0 with an empty-netter.
“Maybe we didn’t produce much offense but we did a lot of good things the first two games,” said Copp, whose gorgeous cross-ice diagonal feed set up Frank Vatrano for the power-play snipe that gave the Blueshirts a 1- 0 lead at 13:31 of the first period before later scoring a third-period goal of his own. “Now guys are feeling a little bit better about themselves.
“We’ve got to ride this momentum into Carolina.”
The momentum in this one was generated by Igor Shesterkin, who put his indelible mark on the match with a spectacular glove save on Brett Pesce just 1:16 into the match, the netminder coming across like lightning to close a wide-open side on a backdoor play. There was an equally stunning stop 2:00 into the second, Shesterkin somehow flashing the right pad to deny Teuvo Teravainen right out in front to maintain a 2-0 lead.
“It seems like he’s making those huge saves every game,” said Ryan Lindgren, who not only gutted this one out in fine fashion but added offense to his repertoire in picking up a couple of assists on plays where he fired the puck toward the net . “He’s just so steady back there.”
Momentum, too, was generated when Jacob Trouba wiped out Max Domi along the boards at 11:38 of what was a scoreless game played for the most part at a frantic pace. The hit was legal. Carolina’s Steven Lorentz felt the need to come to Domi’s rescue and drop the gloves with Trouba. His knee-jerk response earned an instigator penalty and put the Blueshirts on the power play.
The Rangers had failed to score on their first power play but rarely have looked better, snapping the puck briskly from side to side, from low to high and back again for nearly two full minutes, but could not break through against Antti Raanta. This time, the Blueshirts second unit capitalized on Vatrano’s right-wing drive. Just 2:11 later, it became 2-0 on Fox’s deflection of Lindgren’s left-wing wrister.
“It was a big and kind of changed the course of the game a little bit,” said Copp, whose right-wing drive closed out the scoring at 11:10 of the third. “With them taking that penalty and us capitalizing.”
Fox, who has elevated his play in the postseason, had a superb night on which he played 10:45 in the first, 9:27 in the second and 26:46 for the night. The Mika Zibanejad-Chris Kreider connection was imposing and heady, the Strome line pushed the pace, and the bottom six played their parts. No small roles, no small players.
Kreider used a soccer-style kick after losing his stick to keep the puck deep in the Carolina zone on the sequence on which Fox scored the 2-0 goal. Zibanejad went to the net to bang home a loose puck that slithered through Raanta to make it 3-0 at 16:48 of the second.
The Big Dogs came to play, The Rangers came to play.
The Rangers obviously have bent at times in this series. They have been pinned in their zone too often. They had lulls in both the second and third periods in this one. They’re not perfect. But when they are pinned, they pack the middle the way they did when John Tortorella was behind the bench. They battle for every loose puck. They give as good as they get. They compete. How about that snarl that Alexis Lafreniere brings onto the ice with him on every shift?
As the playoffs progress, the Rangers are morphing into Black-and-Blueshirts, The Sequel.
Carolina still has home ice. The Hurricanes are not shriveling like they were in the pool. But the Rangers are coming. They mean to do business.
Don’t bet against them.