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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Rangers make Madison Square Garden their home again

Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers celebrates with his teammates after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, April 22, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

No longer do they have to tell the Uber driver, “Just drop me off at Herald Square and I’ll walk from there.” No longer do they have to hesitate when someone asks them where they work, only to stammer, “Oh, kind of in the neighborhood around Penn Station.”

The Rangers no longer need to be afraid of calling Madison Square Garden home.

That is the takeaway from their 4-2 first-round triumph over the Canadiens, capped by a 3-1 victory in midtown Saturday night. The Rangers got the Garden back. Home ice truly became an advantage again during the past week, which was their most promising development.

What the noise and the result Saturday told the Rangers was that their hex-shattering win Tuesday had not been an aberration. The key still fits in the lock. The welcome mat is still on the doorstep.

“Obviously, it means a lot. It’s no secret that we haven’t been having the greatest year at home, so to get two out of three at home is really good for us,” Dan Girardi said in the winning locker room. “It started with the great crowd [reaction] for the anthem. Even in warm-up, they were buzzing. We tried to feed off that the best we could.”

Generally speaking, home ice has meant nothing in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Entering Sunday, visiting teams had won 21 of the 40 games. But for the Rangers, it was more of a crisis than a statistic. It had eroded their confidence, what with their complete Garden drought in March and the six-game home playoff losing streak dating to 2015.

Things hit bottom a week ago Sunday with a lackluster 3-1 loss that called into question everything, including the fans’ passion. The energy level in the seats was on the level of an audience at La Boheme.

Alain Vigneault, trying to change the tone, invoked the way Sergio Garcia overcame his long struggle by winning the Masters. The situation, though, might have been more like that of Jordan Spieth and his mental block of ruining two consecutive Masters by hitting into Rae’s Creek.

The Rangers overcame their demons Tuesday and exorcised their curse Saturday.

The fans stepped up their game, too. No, they weren’t as edgy as they were in the old Blue Seat era, but they were intense in their own modern way. Girardi and many others noticed the vibe: People sang along with the national anthem louder than ever. By the end of the night, the customers were chanting, shouting, twirling white towels.

Everybody was home again. Combine that with the team’s ability to win on the road and the Rangers could be tough in this coming series and beyond.

But it is more than that. The Garden is more than a site for the Rangers. It is their identity. It has been that way since the days of the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, when the practice rink was on the top floor. It was weird to think that the current team could develop an allergy to its own house.

“I’ve been here for seven years and played in some pretty big games. The building itself just seems to light up,” said Derek Stepan, who scored the empty-net goal that clinched the series.

“It seems that the noise and the passion of the fans just brings an energy into the building that’s hard to describe, real ly. So to be able to play on the ice in front of that, that’s something I’ll never forget and something that’s a great honor.”

By the time Saturday night was over, the Garden was not in the Rangers’ heads anymore. It was in their hearts, where it always has been.

New York Sports