To win the series, Rangers must do what no one else has

The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t lost a home game in the NHL playoffs this year, so naturally their success in their home arena was a main topic of conversation when the Rangers met with reporters before their flight to the North Carolina Wednesday afternoon.

But in all the talk of travel, rowdy fans and tactical line changes came an important message from Mika Zibanejad, the talented veteran center for Rangers.

“It’s a good team we’re up against,” he said, “but I can’t stress this enough: maybe we showed a little too much respect in the regular season.”

A healthy respect for a good opponent is an essential part of winning. But it must also be projected with a strong dose of self-confidence. Inordinate respect for the opposition sometimes leads to relatively timid performances. The Rangers lost three of their four games to the Hurricanes during the regular season, including a loss at Madison Square Garden last week that prevented the Rangers from winning the Metropolitan Division. Then they lost the first two games of their second-round playoff series.

But those two games in Raleigh, North Carolina, were close and fierce – the first went to overtime – and the Rangers had increased confidence that they could play the Hurricanes in a thrilling MSG, where they won the two games to lock the series. two games each. Teams that take a three-to-two Stanley Cup Playoff lead win the series 79% 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 confusing pattern holds, the Hurricanes will advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. With the elimination of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers, Carolina, as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, has home ice advantage at least until the conference finals — if she’s also going that far — and could go that route all the way through the first three rounds, winning all of a Game 7 series at home.

The Rangers will look to break up the Carolina hex against the visiting teams in Game 5 on Thursday. The Hurricanes are 6-0 at home in the playoffs (0-5 away), including four first-round wins over the Boston Bruins. They also went 29-8-4 in the regular season at home, where ‘Canes fans are loud and energetic in support of their team.

“It’s loud,” Rangers striker Tyler Motte said on Wednesday before the team flew into hostile territory. “They play really well there. They come out with energy, as we saw in games 1 and 2. They can play a dynamic style. They can also try playing a physical game. But they are playing very well in this building and we have to match that intensity.

The Rangers have done much better in their first two games in Raleigh than the Bruins in their losses there. Carolina won all four games against Boston with a plus-12 goal differential. Against the Rangers, Carolina won two tight defensive games, by scores of 2-1 and 2-0.

The disparity between Carolina’s home and away performance is noticeable. At home, they seemed to skate and check more vigorously and have a more aggressive approach. On the road, they sometimes seemed almost overwhelmed.

But there’s another factor at play besides raucous crowds, which have played a significant role in both arenas in this series, and it’s in the hockey rulebook: the home team can make the last line change.

Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour prefers to use his excellent offensive line in check, centered by Jordan Staal with Jesper Fast and Nino Niederreiter on the wings, whenever he sees Gallant sending Zibanejad’s line following a stoppage of play.

“We pretty much know who we are going to see tomorrow,” Zibanejad said on Wednesday. “I don’t think that will change. It was the regular season and the first two games there.

In North Carolina’s first two games, Zibanejad scored zero on four shots and Chris Kreider, who scored a career-high 52 goals this season, scored zero on a single shot. In New York, where Gallant was the one waiting to see which Hurricanes line took the ice first, Zibanejad and Kreider were much more productive. Zibanejad registered two goals and an assist on seven shots. Kreider had one goal and eight shots.

During the Rangers’ first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Zibanejad’s line was often opposed to the center line by Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the game, and it was feared that Zibanejad would focus on Crosby and does not assert itself.

But as the series progressed, Zibanejad got the message from the coaching staff and his teammates that he was one of the elite centers in the game and should think of himself that way. It culminated in an extra-time win in front of an absolutely thrilling garden in Game 7, with Zibanejad scoring the goal that drew Rangers even in the third period.

This goal ignited the garden to mind-blowing levels. But there are times when a silent arena is also preferable.

“Obviously, I’d love to hear a sold-out garden,” Zibanejad said. “That Game 7 was amazing. But it’s a pretty good feeling to hear a quiet building too.

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