NEW YORK — There is no magic in this ice or mystery in these walls. A Rangers goaltender does not automatically become a legend in this net, and not every New York forward is destined for glory.
Madison Square Garden may be famous and historic — the oldest arena still operating in the NHL — but it is still a few ghosts shy of spiritual.
Or so it seemed before this year.
Something odd is happening at the Garden in these playoffs, something almost inexplicable. The Rangers have been humiliated in arenas in Pittsburgh, Carolina and Tampa Bay, and yet have been close to unbeatable atop Penn Station.
And now, with the Eastern Conference final tied going into tonight’s Game 5, Tampa Bay’s hopes of winning a third consecutive Stanley Cup depend on being able to win at least one game in this building.
“It’s a great place to play; it’s a lot of fun. It amps you up just knowing you’re going to play in that building, so we’ve just got to use that as motivation for ourselves,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. “We’re in the conference finals, and our sole focus is on trying to win the next game. It doesn’t matter where we play, whether we’re playing on a pond outside or at (the Garden), we want to win this game.”
Home-ice advantage is a tangible thing. If you exclude Madison Square Garden from the equation, the home team has won about 56 percent of the time in the past two NHL postseasons.
The Rangers, on the other hand, have won 89 percent of their home games.
That’s not normal. It’s also not comforting for the Lightning, who were outscored 9-4 in Games 1 and 2 in New York last week.
So what is it? Is it the intimidation of a building that has 20 jerseys of Rangers and Knicks legends hanging from the rafters? Is it the aura of the “Garden 366,” a photographic retrospective of the biggest events held in the building on every calendar day, including leap year?
Is it the hair-raising intro of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” that the Rangers brought back for their intro music this postseason?
If you look at player polls in recent years, the Garden has not been considered one of the more difficult or hostile places to play in the NHL. So what has changed in 2022?
“That’s actually a good question. I think with their team, they probably get a lot of energy from their crowd. It’s a great crowd,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s called the world’s most famous arena for a reason. It’s a great place to be. The city is vibrant.
“It seems there has been a (disparity) of home-and-away wins and losses for them. You know when you get home-ice advantage and you win all of your home games, it’s a good thing for you. But in any series, at some point you have to win on the road. And that’s what we have to do. That’s got to be our focus.”
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Cooper misspoke just a little. Because the Rangers have home ice in this series, they don’t need to win a road game. If they just hold serve and win all four games at Madison Square Garden, they will advance to the Stanley Cup final against Colorado.
That means the pressure is on the Lightning, and the numbers aren’t exactly in their favor. Tampa Bay is 4-4 in road games in these playoffs, which already matches the number of road losses they had in last year’s postseason.
If there is a silver lining, it is the momentum the Lightning are carrying into Game 5. When they went to New York for Games 1 and 2, they were coming off a nine-day break between rounds and they looked sluggish against the quick-moving Rangers. This time the Lightning are coming off back-to-back victories where they dominated New York in 5-on-5 situations.
“We’ve seen the environment; we know what to expect,” Cooper said. “We’ve got four games under our belt, we know the team we’re playing. We don’t expect anything to change from them and how they play, and I don’t expect anything to change for us.
“We’re just a lot more prepared and way more game-ready. Not going to guarantee the result, but we’re definitely in a better spot than we were three or four games ago.”
The building is special, but it’s not mystical. The atmosphere is electric, but it’s not impenetrable.
If we’re being realistic, Tampa Bay has seen more Stanley Cup finals and titles than Madison Square Garden in the last 30 years.
And if the Lightning win Games 5 or 7, that list could grow in Tampa Bay.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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