Carolina hasn’t won a playoff game on the road during the Stanley Cup playoffs. If the Hurricanes end that streak on Saturday in New York, the Rangers’ season will be over.
Seth Jarvis, the Carolina Hurricanes’ rookie center, bore the swollen aspect of a playoff hockey player on Friday.
With the game in the balance Thursday night and the Rangers forward Ryan Strome in a terrific position to score, Jarvis dove to block the puck, putting his face in front of Strome’s stick. He hoped it would hit his visor or his helmet. Instead, it struck Jarvis squarely in the mouth, and he was unable to sleep most of the night because of the pain. He was heartened, though, knowing the Hurricanes had beaten the Rangers, 3-1, even if his mouth throbbed.
“It feels like someone is constantly pushing my teeth into my mouth,” Jarvis told reporters before the Hurricanes flew from Raleigh, N.C., to New York for Saturday’s Game 6. He added, “It was a play I had to make.”
Jarvis said the injury would “of course” not prevent him from playing on Saturday night. He also said he did not regret the play, which might result in dental surgery after the season. For now, there was no time for X-rays.
“I’m still having a great time,” he said. “I just can’t smile as well as I used to.”
But the smiles for Carolina seem to come only at home lately. The Hurricanes improved to 7-0 at home in the playoffs behind dogged, self-sacrificing plays like the one Jarvis made on Thursday. But they are 0-5 on the road and became the first team to see its first 12 playoff games won by the home team.
A player throwing his face in front of an oncoming stick is understandable. It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs, and hockey players have been doing that kind of thing for a century.
But trying to figure out why the Hurricanes have won only at home and lost all of their games on the road is much more of a mystery, even to Gerard Gallant, the Rangers’ coach.
“I don’t understand why that’s going on,” Gallant said at the Rangers practice facility on Friday, after the team arrived from Raleigh.
For Rod Brind’Amour, the Carolina coach, the situation boils down to a series of 12 coincidences, particularly regarding the five losses.
“That’s a nonissue,” Brind’Amour told reporters on Friday. “I know, that’s all I hear about. We haven’t played poorly on the road. Our games have been fine. There have been a couple of things that have gone squirrelly, penalties, and then 5-on-3s and then, all of a sudden, those games get tossed away. If that would have happened at home, it would be the same thing.”
The Rangers, now one loss from elimination, face what Gallant called a “desperate game.” They hope home-ice advantage continues for at least one more game and then ceases. They trailed the Hurricanes by two games to none but won both of their home games to even the series. If they win Saturday and force a Game 7, it would be Monday — in Raleigh.
Gallant did not like the way his team played on Thursday. He told reporters that his players looked tired. It was reminiscent of what he said after the Rangers fell to the Penguins in Pittsburgh in Game 4 of their first-round series, when he said the Rangers played “soft.”
At the time, the Rangers trailed the Penguins three games to one and faced elimination then, as well. But they responded by winning the next three games and advanced to the second round. On Friday, Gallant downplayed his criticism of the team, both on Thursday night and in Pittsburgh earlier in the month. He said the remarks in Pittsburgh had nothing to do with why the team responded so well.
But something turned their season around, and calling hockey players soft is a staggering verbal blow. Perhaps calling them tired will have the same effect.
In Gallant’s view, it was the players’ inherent understanding of the dire situation they faced in all three of the games against the Penguins that led to their transformation. He said they understand it now, also. And they know that playing in front of a rollicking crowd at Madison Square Garden seems to bolster their play.
“Really confident,” Alexis Lafrenière, the Rangers second-year forward, said on Friday. “We know we can come back. We’ve done it in this series and the series before. It’s about us being confident and playing as a team, and that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
Igor Shesterkin, New York’s sensational goalie, has been a big part of the team’s comebacks in games and series. Against the Penguins, Shesterkin had two bad games in Pittsburgh and was pulled from both. But then he — and the Rangers overall — corrected whatever flaws existed, and since then the Rangers, like Carolina, have not lost at home.
“He makes us believe we can win any hockey game we play in,” Gallant said.
Shesterkin has allowed only 17 goals in his last eight games, just 2.13 goals per game. He has allowed only 13 goals in regulation in six home playoff games and his only loss at home in the postseason was the triple overtime game against Pittsburgh in Game 1, where he made 79 saves. So, the Rangers have a bit of a home-ice thing going on as well.
The first team to obliterate the spell will win the series. The Hurricanes have the next opportunity on Saturday. To succeed, they will have to find a way to replicate the same desperate, tooth-shattering approach they employ at home.
“Coming out hot,” Jarvis said. “We usually start slow on the road, so that is something we’ve got to aim for, coming out fast.”