Another road loss, but Hurricanes suddenly have bigger problem as Raanta sows seeds of doubt

The Carolina Hurricanes are heading back to Raleigh with a bigger problem than their persistent inability to win a playoff game on the road, one that for the second time has pushed them to the Game 7 brink.

For the first time in the playoffs, they’re facing a true crisis of confidence in their goaltending, and Frederik Andersen isn’t coming through that door to save them.

There’s every reason to expect Antti Raanta to bounce back from this Game 6 disaster, given how otherwise outstanding he has been during these playoffs, but it’s impossible to play as poorly as he did in Saturday’s 5-2 loss and not plant at least a few seeds of doubt that weren’t there before.

And with Igor Shesterkin at his best in his best game of the series — he shut down Sebastian Aho on a breakaway immediately before Raanta gave up the first of three soft goals and picked up a pair of assists and a penalty, a Tom Barrasso hat trick– there’s absolutely no margin for error. The Hurricanes don’t necessarily have to win the goaltending battle to win this series, but they at least have to be playing the same game.

That might be one thing if the Hurricanes were headed back to Raleigh tied 2-2 again, but they’re out of second chances now. They’ve put themselves in a position where Shesterkin only has to steal one game to end their season. And as good as they have been at home, they’re really pushing their luck trying to win eight straight.

That may be an even tougher ask than it was in the first round, only two weeks ago even if it feels like months, against a team with better goaltending than the Boston Bruins and, in the so-far-so-quiet Artemi Panarin, a ticking time bomb capable of unleashing a multi-point game at any time. He may have awakened Saturday with a five-on-three goal in the third period.

The Hurricanes are now risking their season on this very strange procession of home-team victories, already unprecedented in NHL history. No team has ever won multiple best-of-seven series in the same postseason without winning a road game.

Suddenly, that’s the least of the Hurricanes’ problems.

The goals Raanta gave up Saturday would have been unacceptable in any circumstances, crippling in any playoff game, but were catastrophic given the first-period performance of the guy in the other net. Tyler Motte’s opener went under Raanta’s left elbow, Mika Zibanejad whipped one past him from the left wing on a power play — after darting between Fast and Sebastian Aho at the blue line — and Filip Chytil ended Raanta’s night almost two periods early with a short-sider from the right wing.

Raanta has 45 hours to regain his composure and rediscover his game, because it’s not like the Hurricanes have any other choice.

Andersen remains out indefinitely, not yet fit to backup, not even the emergency third goalie, who remains Jack LaFontaine, Brind’Amour said Saturday morning. For the second time in these playoffs, the Hurricanes feel Andersen’s absence acutely. Pyotr Kotchetkov had to start Game 3 in Boston after Raanta was injured in Game 2, a game when the Hurricanes would have enjoyed their goalie stealing a win for them.

Under normal circumstances, the Hurricanes would and could move seamlessly between Andersen and Raanta without blinking, as they did throughout the regular season. It’s not quite the same with Kotchetkov, who made his second appearance in relief of Raanta, by choice this time — although after the Rangers’ third goal, Brind’Amour really had no choice.

And while Kotchetkov gave up one goal shortly after coming in, Chytil’s second of the game, he did enough on a first-do-no-harm basis to give the Hurricanes a chance to get back into the game before Panarin’s goal on the two-man advantage.

(And by keeping things close enough to avoid any mayhem, Kotchetkov lessened the chances he would go 190 feet to challenge Shesterkin vratar-on-vratar if things really kicked off.)

And the Hurricanes had chances: two power plays after Vincent Trocheck scored to make it 4-2, but they made nothing of them. Raanta could only look on glumly from the bench, chin buried in his pads.

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