The Carolina Hurricanes have not lost a home game in this year’s NHL playoffs, so it is natural that their success was the main topic of conversation at their arena when the Rangers met with reporters before flying to North Carolina on Wednesday afternoon.
But in the discussion of travel, loud fans, and tactical changes came an important message from Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers ’talented, veteran center.
“This is a good team we play for,” he said.
Healthy respect for a good opponent is an essential component of victory. But it must also be designed with a great deal of self-confidence. Excessive respect for the opposition sometimes leads to relatively modest performances. The Rangers have lost three of their four games to the Hurricanes in the regular season, including a loss to Madison Square Garden last week, which ruled out the Rangers winning the Metropolitan Division. Then they lost the first two games of the second round post-season.
But those two games in Rally, NC, were closed and heavy – the first went to overtime – and the Rangers had an increased belief that they could play the Hurricanes in a pulsed MSG where they won both games to close the series. Per two games. Teams that win two of three games in the Stanley Cup play-offs win the series 79 percent of the time.
“We have not played a bad game yet,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant. So I expect to play a good game on the road.
But winning the rally has so far been unacceptable, and if this confusing pattern continues, the storm will move to the Stanley Cup final. With the liquidation of the Panthers, the holders of the Presidential Trophy, Carolina, as the second best team in the Eastern Conference, has a major advantage that is secured at least in the conference finals – if it reaches it before – and can go all the way that way. The first three rounds, won all series in the 7th game at home.
The Rangers will try to break through Carolina’s home hexagon in Game 5 on Thursday away. The Hurricanes 6-0 (0-5 on the road) in the playoffs, including four first-round wins against the Boston Browns. They also scored 29-8-4 at home in the regular season where “Cannes fans are adventurous and energetic to support their team.
“It’s loud,” Rangers forward Tyler Mote said Wednesday as the team flew into hostile territory. “They play very well there. They come out with energy, as we saw in games 1 and 2. They can play in a dynamic style. They can also try and play physical game. But they just play well in this building and we have to put up with that intensity.”
The Rangers played much better in the first two games of the rally than the Bruins lost there. Carolina won four games against Boston plus a 12-goal margin. With the Rangers, Carolina won two close, defensive games, 2-1 and 2-0.
There is a noticeable difference between Carolina’s home and guest performances. The house seemed to slip and check more vigorously and take a more aggressive approach. On the way they sometimes seemed almost overwhelmed.
But there is another factor besides the thrilling crowd that has played an important role in both arenas of this series and that is in the hockey rule book: the home team can change the last line.
Carolina coach Rod Brind’amur prefers to use his excellent check-in forward line, centered on Jordan Stahl with Jesper Fast and Nino Niederter on the wings, when he sees that Galant sends Zibanejad’s line after the game is stopped.
“We are quite confident who we will see tomorrow,” Zibanejad said on Wednesday. “I do not think it will change. It was a regular season and the first two games.
In the first two games in North Carolina, Zibanejad had no points on four shots, while Chris Craider, who has scored the highest 52 goals in his career this season, did not have a point on a single shot. In New York, where Galant was waiting to see which storm line would shoot the ice, Zibanejad and Craider were much more productive. Zibanejad scored two goals in seven shots and made the assist. Craider scored a goal and eight shots.
During the Rangers’ first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zibanejad’s line often clashed with Sidney Crosby, one of the game’s best players, and there were concerns that Zibanejad was focused on Crossby and did not assert himself.
But as the series progressed, Zibanejad received a message from the coaching staff and teammates that he is one of the elite centers of the game and so he should think for himself. Culminating in Game 7 in front of an absolutely pulsating garden with an overtime victory, Zibanejad scored a goal that the Rangers even played in the third period.
This goal lit up the garden to an deafening level. But there are times when a silent arena is also desirable.
“Obviously, I want to know the garden sold,” Zibanejad said. “Game 7 was unbelievable. But it also feels pretty good to hear in a quiet building.”