If Alain Vigneault and the New York Rangers are to have any success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, their MSG woes must be solved.
The New York Rangers are not going to win a playoff series, let alone the Stanley Cup, if they continue to “play” at their current level on home ice. The team has lost its last seven straight home games and hasn’t grabbed two points on Broadway since Feb. 19 against the Capitals.
Yes, that was over a month ago. It’s become abundantly clear that home cooking alone is not going to get this team where it needs to be as we approach April.
Despite their NHL-leading 26 wins on the road, the Rangers are going to have to win at home if they’re to make a deep run. Likely opening the playoffs away from home against the winner of the Atlantic Division is certainly a good omen for the Blueshirts, who seem to thrive in front of hostile crowds.
But banking on three wins away from the Garden in a best-of-seven series is playing with fire moving forward, and it’s an issue the Rangers must address during their remaining eight games in top wild card purgatory.
Believe it or not, the Garden was Eden for the Rangers not too long ago.
They began the season by rattling off wins in eight of their first nine home games and looked to be building MSG back into a fortress. Last year, the Rangers finished the year 27-10-4 at home. While it didn’t exactly do wonders for them against the Penguins in 2016, this year feels different. If (and when) the Rangers do open up their playoffs in either Montreal or Ottawa, they’ll do so knowing that they have avoided what could go down as one of the greatest regular season divisions in NHL history.
The Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets have already eclipsed the 100-point mark with 10 games remaining a piece. Thus, the Rangers cannot count on making their way through the East by winning 75 percent of their games on the road and only 25 percent at home; especially given each of the aforementioned Metropolitan Division “Big Three” teams already has at least 26 home wins apiece.
And so, the time has come for AV to right the ship; a ship that as recently as this season seemed to spell trouble and intimidation for opposing teams from the moment their planes touched down at JFK or LaGuardia. Interestingly, the path back towards creating a daunting Garden begins exactly where you’d expect it to: on the road. The Rangers will play their next three games in California, and the surprising timing of the late-season West Coast trip could pay huge dividends when they return on Friday, Mar. 31 to face the Pens at home.
Firstly, it’s extremely likely the team will get the huge boost that is Henrik Lundqvist back in net. Antti Raanta’s play has been mostly solid while filling in for the King this year, but the morale boost and sheer collective knowledge of the importance of Hank getting consistent run before the playoffs should have this group buzzing. This aspect of the last prolonged road trip of the season must be a galvanizer for the current group, who will also likely get back Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein (for better or worse) at some point on the trip too. With all the familiar faces back in the fold, the group will be at full strength, and must respond by playing road games like they have all season.
The focal point, though, will be carrying the results back with them from Disneyland. Not only will they have the defending Stanley Cup champions waiting for them on their home turf upon their return; the Penguins will be battling for points as part of a heavyweight battle atop the Metro to clinch home ice throughout the playoffs.
Believe it or not, playing a hungry, motivated Penguins team twice in nine days at Madison Square Garden to close the season is exactly what the Rangers need. Winning those two games alone could make up for all the struggles the team has faced in Gotham in 2017.
As is common knowledge around the hockey world, the playoffs are the start of the second season and every team that makes the dance has a clean slate, both at home and on the road. Two wins against Pittsburgh in the immediate buildup could get this team’s confidence back to exactly where it needs to be at exactly the right time.
The possibility of turning the Garden into a fortress is still out there for the Rangers. Now, it’s up to the boys to go out there and take it.
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