Lazerus: Rangers prove their championship mettle after flirting with infamy

RALEIGH, N.C. — Evgeny Kuznetsov, in his inimitable, impish way, promised “hell” for the New York Rangers if they had to come back to North Carolina for a Game 6 in this increasingly indescribable second-round series.

Oh, but this wasn’t hell. Not even with a “raise hell” theme for the night. Not even with AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” blaring before puck drop. Not even with Carolina’s notoriously loud fans reaching new heights as the Hurricanes took a two-goal lead into the third period at PNC Arena. This was nothing.

No, hell is what would have followed a potential Game 7 if the Rangers never pulled out of this tailspin in time to salvage this series. Hell would have been living with the utter failure of losing in the second round after winning the first seven games of the playoffs. Hell would have been the infamy of becoming the fifth team in Stanley Cup playoff history to blow a 3-0 series lead. Hell would have been trying to sleep while endlessly reliving Jordan Martinook’s singular, spectacular save in the second period of Game 6 when he swept Ryan Lindgren’s shot off the goal line from his belly after it had already beaten Frederik Andersen through the legs.

Hell would have been always knowing they had let a golden opportunity at winning the Rangers’ second Stanley Cup in 84 years slip through their fingers, frittering away one of the best seasons in franchise history.

“I (was) just scared thinking about that,” Artemi Panarin said.

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Panarin can admit that now. Now that the Rangers have proven their mettle. Now that Chris Kreider has etched himself into Rangers lore alongside the likes of Matteau and Messier with a natural hat trick to turn a 3-1 third-period deficit into a 5-3 Game 6 victory in front of a silenced, shell-shocked Carolina crowd. Now that the Rangers’ next game at Madison Square Garden will be against either the Florida Panthers or the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final rather than in a winner-take-all Game 7 against the never-say-die Hurricanes.

Postgame locker rooms in the NHL are never all that rowdy after series victories that don’t involve the Stanley Cup itself. The players are too tired and there’s too much work left to do. Save the champagne and the plastic wrap and the ski goggles for late June. So there wasn’t much celebration in the cramped visitors room at PNC Arena after this one. But there was a palpable sense of relief, knowing that the Rangers only flirted with infamy, rather than set a date with it.

“To be honest, I kind of felt nervous on the bench when we were a couple goals down,” said Panarin, who sometimes seems incapable of the usual wall of casual bravado that most pro athletes throw up. “And still in the third period, we were down. I was actually nervous. But we did it — thank God.”

Funny how quickly things can change.

The Rangers were dead in the water, down 3-1 and handling the puck like a hand grenade, missing the net over and over again. Then Carolina goaltender Frederik Andersen lost a Mika Zibanejad puck in his skates and Kreider whacked it in.

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The Rangers power play was lifeless, having gone nine straight chances with nary a goal, and precious few real chances. Then Kreider tipped in a rising Panarin shot and the game was tied.

The game seemed destined for overtime as both teams battened down the hatches. Then Kreider capped his hat trick and it was the Hurricanes left scrambling.

Nine minutes. Nine minutes for a 3-1 deficit to become a 4-3 lead, for Kreider to go from franchise pillar to franchise legend, for an all-time Rangers choke job to become an all-time Rangers gut-check, for an all-time Hurricanes comeback to become an all-time what-if.

“They’re a great team,” said Barclay Goodrow, who finally eased the tension with a 143-foot empty-netter with 48.1 seconds left. “It’s not like we go up 3-0 and they’re going to roll over and quit. They’re a really good team and we knew they were going to fight back. We maybe had a letdown game last game but I think throughout the season, whenever that’s happened, we’ve rebounded and came back stronger the next game.”

Doing it in the regular season is one thing. Doing it in the postseason is quite another. And now the Rangers know what they’re capable of. New York’s top two lines could have been on milk cartons the last couple of games. In Game 6, they combined for four goals and six assists over the last 35 minutes. Shesterkin found his all-world form just as Kreider did, denying Carolina captain Jordan Staal from point-blank range shortly before Kreider’s equalizer on the power play, then stoning Andrei Svechnikov unchecked from the low slot with 2:39 left, with Andersen pulled. The Rangers were tested — truly tested — for the first time, and they aced it.

The Rangers were never going to go 16-0; that simply doesn’t happen in the NHL. It’s better this way. Championship teams are forged in the fires of frustration and futility. Championship teams find a way.

On the other end of the handshake line was a team still trying to find that way. For the fourth straight season, the Hurricanes looked the part of legitimate contender. For the fourth straight season, their playoff run ended without a victory beyond the second round. There were the usual culprits, too. For all their strengths — the relentless forecheck wreaking havoc in the offensive zone, the Rod Brind’Amour-esque work ethic that leads to miraculous plays like Martinook’s save, the deep back end that allows them to control the tempo so well — the Hurricanes still didn’t get enough scoring from up top, and still didn’t get enough saves from in goal. Jake Guentzel, their big trade-deadline addition, the long-sought-after sniper, was absolutely terrific in his brief time in Carolina, but had no goals and just one assist in the last three games. Sebastian Aho got a big goal off an Andrei Svechnikov feed to make it 3-1 midway through the second, but that dynamic top line still finished the postseason having been outscored 5-4 at five-on-five.

And then there’s Andersen. Playoff Freddie (technically an unfair nickname, but Late In A Series Freddie doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) reared his ugly head again, falling to 5-8 when facing elimination (including wins in Games 4 and 5). He made just 19 saves on 23 shots, his save percentage in elimination games falling to a paltry .897. He’s 0-4 with an .856 save percentage in Game 7s, so even had the Rangers not pulled this one out of their Broadway hat, Carolina would have had a lot to overcome on Saturday night.

It’s a familiar refrain, and a familiar pain.

“This is a tough way to end a really good year,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “These guys played their butts off all year. But this is what you’re going to remember. That’s the hard part.”

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Now the Rangers get a few days off, and they can sit back and watch the Bruins and Panthers beat up on each other for another game (preferably two). All that tension that had been weighing on them since dropping Game 4 is lifted now, but it’ll be back with a vengeance when the puck drops next. All that work and all that sweat and all that energy expended, and they’re only halfway there. That’s playoff hockey — an unrelenting, agonizing, excruciating mental and physical grind, beautiful but brutal at the same time.

A hell of sorts, you might say.

But one the Rangers now know they can handle. One they now know they can thrive in.

“We just tried not to be frustrated,” Panarin said. “That’s the playoffs. It’s up and down every time. It’s hard to do sometimes. But we did it.”

(Top photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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