Now it has become a Thing, this Rangers malaise at Madison Square Garden. It is hovering over them like a leaden cloud, it envelops them like a straitjacket. The coach insists it can be overcome and, for inspiration, pointed to the fellow in a green jacket.
“Knock it out of your mind and go out and play. That’s what the guy who just won the Masters did,” Alain Vigneault said a day after the Rangers showed that they desperately need a mulligan and a week and a day after Sergio Garcia overcame his torment and finally won a major championship.
“He knocked all those bad rounds or majors out of his head and he went out and won. Most of the experts, most of the fans thought he couldn’t do it, but he did,” the Rangers coach and golf enthusiast said after a rare off-day practice at the Garden.
OK, we recognize what is supposed to come next. Here is the natural spot for the proverbial hockey/golf joke. You know, something along the lines of, “If the Rangers don’t play better in Game 4 on Tuesday night than they did at home against Montreal on Sunday, then they will be on the golf course soon enough.” We get it.
But this situation is too weird for clichés. The glorious building between Seventh and Eighth Avenues has become the World’s Most Famous Jinx. The Rangers went all of March without winning there. In the playoffs, it is worse. The home side has lost six in a row, not having won since a 2-1 decision over the Lightning on May 16, 2015.
Worst of all, the place was quiet Sunday. Former Ranger Ray Ferraro said on the national telecast that it was the quietest he has ever heard the building for a playoff game. Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, who grew up a Rangers fan in Connecticut, said Monday that the place didn’t have its usual intimidating bite.
“It might have been the frustration the other side had,” he said. “We know that’s not going to be the case [in Game 4]. This is a special place to play and this team gets a lot of energy from its crowd despite what people are saying about their home record. That always changes in the playoffs.”
He has a point. A home game is no guarantee (a gimme, in golf terms) in the modern National Hockey League. Heading into action Monday night, road teams had won more games than home teams in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, 11 to nine.
“I have no idea why that is,” Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith said, then added a conjecture: “I think it’s just parity. It’s hard to win in this game. It’s hard to close out games. And sometimes it’s just how the cookie crumbles.”
But the Rangers’ situation is an exception inside the rule. It is not a statistical blip. It is a Thing. Players and coaches are beyond looking for a cause. “If it was just one thing to point out, we could correct it,” Henrik Lundqvist said. They are at the point of trying not to have it dominate their thoughts and make them grip their sticks too tightly.
They are not blaming the fans or the Garden itself. “Coming in as a visitor, you’re always nervous because it’s Madison Square Garden. There’s a little bit of a fear factor in that sense because it’s such a great building,” said Smith, acquired from the Red Wings on Feb. 28. Rookie teammate Brady Skjei said, “We love playing here. It’s an awesome place.”
Pacioretty respects every bit of the Garden experience, from the Potvin chant to his personal favorite attraction, the frenetic gyrations of Dancing Larry. “I saw him in the bathroom once,” the Canadiens captain said of a then-fellow fan whom he considered a celebrity.
Vigneault tried to downplay the slump, saying this is a new year and that Sunday was just one game. But he knows better. He probably also knows that the only approach is the one that won for Garcia at Augusta: Acknowledge the drought and meet it head on. That’s the only way to master it.
The Rangers carry the burden of a six-game home playoff losing streak into Tuesday’s Game 4 against the Canadiens at the Garden.
2015 Eastern Conference Final
Game 2 Tampa Bay 6, Rangers 2 Goal-scorers: Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan
Game 5 Tampa Bay 2, Rangers 0
Game 7 Tampa Bay 2, Rangers 0
2016 First Round
Game 3 Pittsburgh 3, Rangers 1 Goal-scorer: Rick Nash
Game 4 Pittsburgh 5, Rangers 0
2017 First Round
Game 3 Montreal 3, Rangers 1 Goal-scorer: Brady Skjei