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Hurricanes' plan helped them climb back into series with Rangers

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes kept losing close games to come within 60 minutes of exiting the NHL playoffs in an embarrassing sweep.

Yet coach Rod Brind'Amour kept insisting his team was playing well in key areas and they had to stick with things.

Somehow, what sounded like little more than a hopeful assessment at the time has brought the Hurricanes back to life in their second-round series with the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers.

The Hurricanes have gone from down 3-0 in the series to winning two straight, including a dominating third period to win Game 5 in Madison Square Garden. And it's come with Carolina largely sticking with what brought it to the playoffs in the sixth time in as many seasons, opting for tweaks over major changes even in a desperate situation.

“There’s certain parts of our game now, we’ve got to get better," Brind'Amour said Tuesday in a Zoom call with reporters. "How much do you juggle it all around? And does that really make you better in the short term?

"You got to this point doing something right, to be playing against the best team in the league in the playoffs. So you had to have done something right to get there. You’ve got to rely on that.”

So far, the bet has paid off, with Carolina playing for a chance to even the series in Thursday's Game 6 at home.

“We trusted our game and it ended up paying off," captain Jordan Staal said after Monday's win.

There have been tweaks, such as for the power play ahead of Game 4 in what has been a nightmarish series for the unit. Carolina put defenceman Brady Skjei and forward Tuevo Teravainen onto the top unit, and they connected on Skjei's late winner in that series-extending win — the lone success in a 1-for-20 performance this series.

Otherwise, Brind'Amour has largely left the lines as is in the series, other than making Evgeny Kuznetsov a healthy scratch in Game 2 for Max Comtois.

And yet, the plans that were in place as they fell in that massive series hole are largely the same as now with them threatening to climb out of it. Carolina is now outscoring New York for the series overall 16-15 and 12-9 at even strength.

The Rangers' edge has been four power-play goals and two short-handed scores, the second coming from Jacob Trouba for the 1-0 lead in Game 5 that put Carolina on the brink of elimination before its third-period explosion.

“You do make tweaks as you go, but you do fight that a lot,” Brind’Amour said. “Just because something isn’t working … do you blow it all up? Do you trust these guys can get it done? You fight that all the time. At the end of the day, I think you’ve just got to believe in your guys.”

He didn't have to look far for validation, starting with Staal.

The 35-year-old captain has been a strong defensive presence and key piece of Carolina's aggressive forecheck, but he had been scoreless in the first nine playoff games with 23 shots coming into Monday. But he broke through with the tying goal as he skated right in from the bench, taking a feed from Dmitry Orlov — who waited for the change beyond the blue line before passing — and extending to his backhand side to beat Igor Shesterkin early in the third to start the Hurricanes' surge.

Carolina finished three points behind the Rangers for the Presidents' Trophy awarded to the top team in the regular-season standings, and entered the NHL playoffs as the favourite to win the Stanley Cup, according to Bet MGM Sportsbook.

The Hurricanes are still facing elimination. But they can even the series and put the pressure fully on the Rangers to avoid only the fifth 3-0 collapse in playoff history with a win Thursday.

Kuznetsov, who scored the go-ahead goal three minutes after Staal's tally, had compared Game 5 to “one bowl of food and two dogs” as of Sunday. He stuck with that metaphor after Monday's win, calling the series “a dogfight now.”

“What we're trying to do the last four days, we're just living it day by day and do what's best available with our opportunities,” Kuznetsov said, adding: “I'm so grateful to have these moments."

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://apnews.com/hub/nhl