The Carolina Hurricanes have not lost a home game in this year’s N.H.L. playoffs. Naturally, their success in their 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 essential message from Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers’ talented, veteran centre.
“This is a good team we are playing,” he said, “but I can’t stress this enough: We might have shown a little too much respect in the regular season.”
A healthy respect for a good opponent is an essential component of winning. But it must be projected with a heavy dose of self-confidence, too. Excessive respect toward the opposition sometimes leads to relatively timid performances. During the regular season, the Rangers lost three of their four games against the Hurricanes, 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.”
The disparity between the performances at home and away for Carolina is noticeable. They seemed to skate and check more vigorously at home 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, centred 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’ll 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 issues on one go. In New York, where Gallant was 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 centred 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.