RALEIGH, N.C. — Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much if Henrik Lundqvist is on the bench or up in the stands as he watches the Rangers play. But it was jarring as the Blueshirts’ legendary goaltender was in street clothes as his team played their biggest game in probably two years.
The start went to Igor Shesterkin, Alexandar Georgiev backed up, and the Rangers continued their ascension up the standings with a 5-2 victory over the Hurricanes on Friday night.
The Rangers (32-24-4) came in with a faint, but legitimate hope at the playoffs, and now have won six of their past seven, nine of 12, and 13 of 19. Since Shesterkin was called up on Jan. 6, he has won eight of his first nine NHL starts. Lundqvist has started just three games since Shesterkin’s call-up, but before Friday, he had backed up every one he didn’t play.
The Hurricanes (34-22-4) came into the game holding a six-point edge over the Rangers for the second wild-card spot, with the Islanders, Blue Jackets, Panthers, and Maple Leafs all in the mix.
By the time the third period started, Shesterkin had been terrific and the Rangers held a 3-1 lead. Artemi Panarin got a power-play goal at 1:10 of the third for his 31st of the season — and his 81st point — to make it 4-1. But that was matched by a power-play goal from the Hurricanes, the first power-play goal the Rangers had allowed in seven games and 19 chances, when Sebastian Aho nudged one over the line at 5:12 to make it 4-2.
But with Carolina goalie Petr Mrazek on the bench for the extra attacker, Ryan Strome ended things into the empty net to make it 5-2.
Shesterkin had been tested early, making a couple of big saves on a first-period Carolina power play, including two in rapid succession in close from captain Justin Williams. He also made a great reactionary glove save on Nino Niederreiter to keep it a scoreless tie.
That lasted until Mika Zibanejad blocked a shot and got himself a breakaway, lifting a backhand past Mrazek at 16:41 of the first for a 1-0 lead.
The Hurricanes were able to tie it up when the Blueshirts were slow to get back immediately after their power play had ended, enabling Brock McGinn to walk through the slot and rip a shot over Shesterkin’s glove at 3:25 of the second, making it 1-1.
Panarin then made a great defensive play to create an odd-man situation in close that ended with Jesper Fast’s centering feed going in off the skate of defenseman Brett Pesce at 9:48, giving the Rangers a 2-1 lead. Before the second period ended, the Blueshirts got another good bounce, as Brady Skjei went around the Carolina net and threw one to the front, where it hit off Jake Gardiner’s skate and went in, allowing the Rangers to take a 3-1 lead into the third.