NEW YORK — When asked if there would be any carryover from Game 3 into Game 4 following heated postgame exchanges between the Rangers and Hurricanes, Jacob Trouba brushed the question aside.
“I don’t think too many guys are too worried about it,” he said prior to puck drop on Tuesday. “You guys (the media) make a big deal out of everything, so it doesn’t shock me.”
Maybe so, but it sure looked like there was something extra behind a game-changing hit the Blueshirts’ bruising defenseman threw in the first period.
With a chance to square up Carolina forward Max Domi near center ice, Trouba unloaded a crushing blow that sent Madison Square Garden into a frenzy.
Was it merely a coincidence that Domi was at the center of the previous game’s shenanigans?
Perhaps. But whether Trouba was trying to send a message or not, it was delivered.
Steven Lorentz charged him for a fight that further electrified MSG and earned the Hurricanes an instigator penalty and Lorentz a 10-minute major. Frank Vatrano cashed in on the ensuing power play, setting the course for the Rangers’ most complete effort of the playoffs.
It marked a tone-setting moment in their effort to even this second-round playoff series at two games apiece. They accomplished that with an emphatic 4-1 win in Game 4, making it a best-of-three moving forward.
“That was a big hit by Troubs,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “He sets up at the blue line, and obviously it was a big part of the game. It was a good, clean, hard hit.”
The flying body check is what will lead many of the Game 4 highlight reels, but the penalties that followed were the real backbreakers for Carolina.
Lorentz was trying to protect his teammate — but in doing so, cost his team a goal while igniting the Rangers.
Their power play was buzzing on an opportunity earlier in the period, during which they put four shots on goal but couldn’t quite convert. Giving them another chance turned out to be the Hurricanes’ biggest mistake.
“We’re not out there trying to catch guys at all,” said Andrew Copp, who assisted on Vatrano’s PP goal. “We’re not trying to play stupid or anything like that. We’re just trying to finish our checks when they’re there and play physical when we can and make smart decisions. At the end of the day, them taking the two-minute instigator (penalty) changed the course of the game. We get a power play and now it’s 1-0 — and scoring first has been huge in this series.”
Now the series will shift back to Carolina for Game 5 at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Canes have yet to lose a playoff game at PNC Arena this year — they’re 6-0 — but the Rangers will need to steal at least one if they’re going to complete the rally and pull off the upset.
That’s no easy task, but they’ve already defied the odds a few times in this postseason.
“It’s huge to get the series back to even,” said defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who finished with two assists as he continues to gut his way through a lower-body ailment. “But even the first two games in Carolina, we played good hockey and we’ve been a confident group all year. We played the hockey we wanted to play in Carolina, even though we didn’t get the score we wanted. But I think that just speaks to our team. We were down, but we’re never out. We come back here and feed off our crowd and get two big wins.”
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The Vatrano goal at the 13:31 mark set off a series of events that worked in the Rangers’ favor.
Just over two minutes later, Adam Fox scored his first goal of the series by tipping a wrist shot from Lindgren past Canes goalie Antti Raanta.
That sent the Blueshirts into the second period with a 2-0 lead, which they would eventually pad on a heads up play by Mika Zibanejad.
Raanta stopped a shot from Lindgren with 3:12 remaining in the period, but the rebound sat loose underneath him. Zibanejad swooped in to clean it up and get the ever-important third goal.
“We came out, we were moving around the offensive zone, making plays and getting a lot of chances,” Fox said. “I thought we did a good job with the lead, too. Obviously when they’re down three goals, they’re going to push a little and get some chances. But I thought we didn’t sit back as much later on and kind of created for ourselves, as well. It was definitely a full team effort.”
While Zibanejad’s fifth playoff goal made the score lopsided, the flow of the game was not. The Hurricanes continued to pressure and push for scoring chances, as is their reputation.
“We go into the series and we know we’re playing against a real good hockey team over there,” Gallant said. “We battle with them and compete, but I think these four games have all been – anybody could have won any one of the games. I really believe that. We executed real well tonight and finished off a power play goal and got a couple of nice plays. That was a difference in the game, but there’s not much in any of these four games.”
The difference is the Canes don’t have Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers’ netminder was excellent once again with 30 saves.
It started on the first shot he saw, as he flew across the crease to close up what looked to be an open net for Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.
“That was elite, elite goaltending right there,” Copp said. “That can be deflating for a team.”
He made another “wow” save on Teuvo Teravainen with his right pad early in the second period and frustrated the Canes on a handful of occasions.
A third-period goal from Teravainen ended Shesterkin’s chances of a shutout, but he’s now stopped 117 of the 122 shots he’s faced in this series for an .959 save percentage.
“Same every night,” Gallant said. “The way he’s been playing is incredible.”
Finally, with 8:50 to play, Copp netted a security goal for his third point of the night.
That capped a signature night for the Rangers’ trade-deadline additions, particularly the forwards. Copp led their highest-scoring effort of the series, with Vatrano adding two points and Tyler Motte moving up the lineup into the top nine.
“They’ve been huge,” Gallant said. “The day we got them, we were really excited with the character of these guys and the work that they bring to our team. They’re putting the puck in the net for us and they’re doing all the little things.”
Gallant explained his decision to bump Motte to the third line with Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil as wanting “a little more speed.” That, in turn, dropped 21-year-old Kaapo Kakko to the fourth line and limited him to 10:40 time on ice.
Meanwhile, Copp and Vatrano returned to their usual spots in the top six after starting Game 3 on the third line.
Following the trade deadline, they had solidified the Rangers’ depth at right wing and were key players down the stretch of the regular season. But in recent games, they’d seen a dip in production.
That made Tuesday’s reinvigorated effort all the more encouraging, particularly after the Blueshirts managed only four goals through the first three games of the series.
“In the playoffs and in the regular season, they came in and were big factors,” Fox said. “It’s guys with experience and guys who know how to play the right way. Up front, you could see what Copper and Frank are able to do. They’re skill players, and you can see the jolt of energy we get from Motter when he’s in. He’s, I think, an underrated part of what we’ve been doing here in the playoffs. When he came back, it seems like defensively he’s all over the ice, and killing penalties is huge.”
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.