This was one time no one needed to be told how bad they were playing. The paint on the dressing room walls could and would remain thoroughly unpeeled. The Carolina Hurricanes had no illusions. They were getting their butts beat, and they were lucky they didn’t have to claw back more than one goal in the final 20 minutes.
Their ability to self-diagnose was not unusual. Their inability to get to their game, to play their way was. The New York Rangers had a lot to do with that, but not all. The Hurricanes could see the problem. They needed only to look within.
The lines were shuffled going into the third period, almost a rote maneuver at that point, even futile action a better option than inaction. But what happened next had very little to do with groupings and everything to do with the group. The Hurricanes didn’t get to this point in the season by capitulating.
This may very well be the kind of game that jumps out as a turning point somewhere down this long and twisted road, because what the Hurricanes did in the third period — dominating play, denting the crossbar, and finally breaking through with less than three minutes to go to force overtime in a game they’d been largely outplayed — isn’t just what good teams do. It’s how great teams win.
Ian Cole — him? — secured the 2-1 win 192 seconds into overtime, the Hurricanes’ fifth straight win at home, tying a franchise record, but his goal was merely the extension of a dominant third period that lay in stark contrast to everything that came before it.
The Hurricanes courted disaster, got steered off course by a dogged opponent, struggled to find a way past an elite goalie and still emerged with the opening win in this second-round series.
“I think one thing our team is good at is trying to be as objective as possible assessing our game,” said Cole, whose other playoff goal came in the Stanley Cup finals. “Realizing, hey, that wasn’t good enough, we didn’t get to where we wanted to be, how do we fix it? There’s still time here to turn this game around. Just because we’re losing 1-0 doesn’t mean the game’s over.”
For 40 minutes, the Hurricanes got the five-on-five game they wanted to play, and didn’t get in the Boston series. They just didn’t win it. A strange combination of passive and jumpy, they were simply outplayed by the Rangers, who kept them on the perimeter while the Hurricanes seemed content to accept that.
Even so, it was closely played, a Tony DeAngelo turnover that was basically an outlet pass to his former team giving the Rangers the one chance they needed; Antti Raanta stopped everything else, using the tips of his left toes to prevent Filip Chytil from scoring his second goal of the game.
Through two periods, it was the kind of listless performance more typical of a Tuesday in January at the end of a road-home back-to-back than a second-round playoff opener. Then, finally, the Hurricanes took control.
“We definitely knew we didn’t play our best game,” Aho said. “We have to be way better, obviously. But we still had a pretty confident locker room. We knew it was a one-goal game. It wasn’t 4-0 or anything. We were right there and it was only going to take one shot to tie the game and we came out the right way.”
The Hurricanes came out for the third period with reshuffled lines and renewed energy, taking the first seven shots of the period and pinning the Rangers in their own end for the better part of 10 minutes, albeit with nothing to show for it. But the chances were coming. Nino Niederreiter hit the crossbar on a breakaway. Aho dinged the metal from short range. Raanta had to make another big stop, on Kaapo Kakko, after an Andrei Svechnikov turnover.
The building roared, and time ticked away. It took deft passing in the slot from Teuvo Teravainen to Seth Jarvis to Aho to finally break something loose, Igor Shesterkin stopping Aho with his left pad but leaving space for Aho to shove the rebound through as Aho flew past the post. “It’s not rocket science,” putting Teravainen and Aho together, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said, but it worked.
The Hurricanes left it to the final three minutes. And it would take Cole less than another four minutes to settle things with a spinning shot from the right circle that took a deflection past Shesterkin. Those seven minutes turned defeat into victory, but they also have the potential to reverberate far into the future.
“It’s not necessarily about this game,” Cole said. “It’s about building toward that journey, going forward. We’re not here to win one game in the second round and say ‘OK, that’s it, mission accomplished.’ We’re here to win a Stanley Cup. This is a great step forward and I think it showed our resiliency as a team to be able to check ourselves and fix our game during the game and not have to wait until after the game.”
The Hurricanes were able to check themselves before they wrecked themselves. From such small victories may come much bigger ones.
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