To Win the Series, the Rangers Need to Do What No One Else Has
The Carolina Hurricanes have not lost a home game in this year’s N.H.L. playoffs, so naturally their success in their own arena was a main topic of conversation when the Rangers met with reporters before their flight to North Carolina on Wednesday afternoon.
But contained in all the discussion about travel, loud fans and tactical line changes came an important message from Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers’ talented, veteran center.
“This is a good team we are playing,” he said, “but I can’t stress this enough: We might have shown a little bit too much respect in the regular season.”
A healthy respect for a good opponent is an essential component to winning. But it must be projected with a heavy dose of self-confidence, too. An inordinate amount of respect toward the opposition sometimes leads to relatively timid performances. The Rangers lost three of their four games against the Hurricanes during the regular season, including a defeat at Madison Square Garden in the final week that eliminated the Rangers from winning the Metropolitan Division. Then they lost the first two games of their second-round postseason series.
But those two games in Raleigh, N.C., were close and hard-fought — the first went to overtime — and the Rangers carried a heightened confidence that they could play with the Hurricanes into a pulsating M.S.G., where they won both games to lock the series at two games apiece. Teams that take a three-games-to-two lead in the Stanley Cup playoffs win the series 79 percent of the time.
“We haven’t played a bad game yet,” Rangers Coach Gerard Gallant said. “So, I expect us to play a good game on the road.”
But winning in Raleigh has been elusive so far, and if that perplexing pattern holds, the Hurricanes will advance to the Stanley Cup finals. With the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers eliminated, Carolina, as the Eastern Conference’s second-best team, has home-ice advantage secured at least through the conference finals — if it gets that far — and could follow that path all the way through the first three rounds, winning every series in a Game 7 at home.
The Rangers will try to break Carolina’s home hex over visiting teams in Game 5 on Thursday. The Hurricanes are 6-0 at home in the playoffs (0-5 on the road), including four first-round wins against the Boston Bruins. They also went 29-8-4 in the regular season at home, where ’Canes fans are boisterous and energetic in support of their team.
“It’s loud,” Rangers forward Tyler Motte said on Wednesday before the team flew into hostile territory. “They play really well down there. They come out with energy, as we saw in Game 1 and 2. They can play a dynamic style. They can also try and play a physical game, as well. But they just play really well in that building and we’ve got to match that intensity.”
The Rangers did much better in their first two games in Raleigh than the Bruins did in their losses there. Carolina won the four games against Boston with a plus-12 goal differential. Against the Rangers, Carolina won two close, defensive games, by scores of 2-1 and 2-0.
The disparity between the performances at home and away for Carolina is noticeable. At home, they seemed to skate and check more vigorously and have a more aggressive approach. On the road, they appeared almost overwhelmed at times.
But there is another factor at play besides the raucous crowds, which have played a significant role in both arenas in this series, and it is in the hockey rule book: The home team can make the last line change.
Carolina Coach Rod Brind’Amour prefers to use his excellent checking forward line, centered by Jordan Staal with Jesper Fast and Nino Niederreiter on the wings, whenever he sees Gallant send out Zibanejad’s line following a stoppage in play.
“We are pretty sure who we’re going to see tomorrow,” Zibanejad said on Wednesday. “I don’t think that changes. It’s been the regular season and the first two games there.”
In the first two games in North Carolina, Zibanejad had no points on four shots and Chris Kreider, who scored a career-high 52 goals this season, had no points on one shot. In New York, where Gallant was the one waiting to see which Hurricanes line would take the ice first, Zibanejad and Kreider were far more productive. Zibanejad registered two goals and an assist on seven shots. Kreider had a goal and eight shots.
During the Rangers’ first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zibanejad’s line was frequently opposite the line centered by Sidney Crosby, one of the game’s best players, and there was concern that Zibanejad was focused on Crosby and did not assert himself.
But as the series progressed, Zibanejad got the message from the coaching staff and his teammates that he is one of the elite centers in the game and should think of himself in that manner. It culminated in an overtime win in front of an absolutely pulsating Garden in Game 7, with Zibanejad scoring the goal that drew the Rangers even in the third period.
That goal ignited the Garden to earsplitting levels. But there are times when a silent arena is preferable, too.
“Obviously, I would like to hear a sold-out Garden,” Zibanejad said. “That Game 7 was unbelievable. But it’s a pretty good feeling to hear a quiet away building as well.”