Sebastian Aho was still speaking to the media late Friday night when Brendan Smith slipped into the room.
The defender dropped to a table, his face flushed, the definition of being exhausted in victory. When Aho finished and left, the two shared a quick punch.
Adjustment, of course. It was Aho and Smith who teamed up on the game-winning goal in the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 2 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.
He came in shorthanded at the end of the second period. Aho received a pass from Teuvo Teravainen, skated down the right wing and passed a pass between the legs of defender Adam Fox to an open Smith, who was skating as fast as his 33-year-old legs would allow.
“He bet it all on the money,” Smith said.
Aho added an empty-net goal in the dying seconds or regulation to cap a win that took the Canes to a 2-0 lead at New York for Games 3 and 4. The Canes quickly swarmed, again once, around goalkeeper Antti Raanta, who had the 21-save shutout and added to the feel-good story that the guy the Canes called ‘Father Finn’ is setting up in the playoffs.
There was a time when the Hurricanes apparently couldn’t beat the Rangers, not very often. Not with goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers net and certainly not at Madison Square Garden, where a number of things generally went wrong for the Canes and right for the Rangers.
In an interesting twist, some of the players Rangers have let go or fired in recent years are helping beat Rangers and put them in the series hole 2-0 – Smith, Brady Skjei, Jesper Fast and Tony DeAngelo among them .
A year ago, Smith was with the Rangers. Deemed expendable, he signed a one-year, $800,000 free agent deal with Carolina, a team that wanted him, a team that he believed could challenge for the Cup.
And there is Raanta. Smith said that in Raanta’s two years with Rangers, it felt like some of ‘King Henrik’s’ innate competitiveness and mental toughness swayed Raanta.
“He doesn’t want to get marked anytime soon,” Smith said of Raanta. “Whether it’s one of those little shootout games or whatever, he doesn’t want to get marked and I think that continues.
“I am thinking of Henrik Lundqvist. He never wanted to be marked, even in training. Maybe it dissipated on (Raanta). And he got into it. »
Raanta does not deny it. He was with Rangers in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, replacing Lundqvist at a time when Lundqvist won 66 games over those two years.
“When I was in New York, what Hank was doing there was probably an eye opener for me,” Raanta said Friday. “Every year he was one of the best goalkeepers and I was like, ‘This is why he is the best goalkeeper.’ He was always working, always trying to improve.
That was then. Lundqvist, winner of the Vézina Trophy in 2012, is retired. Igor Shesterkin is now the Rangers’ new star goaltender and perhaps an emerging superstar, a Vezina finalist this season at 26.
“He fights until the end, he moves amazing, he makes the saves when needed and sometimes he makes these huge saves on the best moments.” Raanta said.
Shesterkin allowed three goals in two games against the Canes in the series. But Raanta granted two. It’s been so close and it could continue to be.
“It’s always good to play the best goaltender in the league,” Raanta said. “It’s a fun battle, but more than anything, it’s about focusing on your own thing.”
With a 1-0 lead in the third, the Canes stubbornly put sticks on the pucks and blocked shots and cleared the area, keeping the Rangers muzzled, preventing them from tying the score.
“Our fighting level was high,” Smith said.
This includes the Finnish goalkeeper, who learned this from a former Ranger.