Remember when MSG was a home ice advantage?

Derek Stepan

Derek Stepan is mobbed by teammates after scoring the dramatic OT winner in Game 7 to beat the Caps 2-1 and advance to the Conference Final in 2015. The last time the Rangers were tough to beat at MSG. AP Photo by Julie Jacobson/Getty Images

In thinking about how poor the Rangers are at MSG, it’s hard to fathom. They’re not the same team on home ice that they are on the road. Entering tomorrow’s road match at Tampa Bay, they’re 22-8-0 away from The Garden. The 22 road wins pace the NHL. At home, they’re 19-14-2 after falling for the third straight time in a lopsided 4-1 loss to the Canadiens.

So, what’s the biggest issue? For starters, the Rangers have a goal differential of plus-nine in 35 games at MSG. They’ve scored 111 and allowed 102. They rank 27th at home on the power play only going 15-for-101 (14.8 percent). They’re not much better on the penalty kill ranked 25th out of 30 teams. They’ve allowed 20 power play goals in 90 chances which translates to 77.8 percent. Anything below 80.0 is bad. If your specialty teams aren’t up to par, it’s pretty hard to win consistently at home.

The bad special teams contributes negatively. Especially when this team is busy firing blanks on the power play. Though it’s not just exclusive to MSG, they’re 1 for the last 30. The power outage has dropped them to 18th overall converting 18.1 percent (34-for-188). How do they do on the road? Significantly better. The Rangers rank sixth going 19-for-87 (21.8 percent).

The penalty kill is also much better tied with the Ducks for fifth best. They’ve allowed 12 power play goals in 80 attempts killing off 85.0 percent. A big difference compared to how they play at home. When you combine the better special teams away from MSG with their even strength play, the Rangers have a goal differential of plus-27 on the road. They’ve outscored opponents 96-69.

Just how much better are they when not at MSG? Seven of their eight shorthanded goals have come on the road. The Blueshirts are currently tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals with three other teams.

The good news is they have 11 more games on the road compared to only six at home. With 17 games left, they can turn it around. The next four are away from their kryptonite. That includes a back-to-back in Florida starting with the Lightning tomorrow followed by the Panthers Tuesday. The third game in four is at hapless Carolina. Then they conclude a four-game road trip at Detroit in Brendan Smith’s homecoming next Sunday.

Here’s how bad the Rangers have been lately at The Garden. Facing three potential playoff opponents, they were outscored 13-4 by the Blue Jackets, Capitals and Canadiens. Each played more physical and forced the Rangers into mistakes that wound up in the back of the net. The last home win was a throwback game in which they edged the Caps 2-1 on Feb. 19. A game in which Henrik Lundqvist turned back the clock finishing with 31 saves while the team played lock down defense. He stifled Marcus Johansson twice in the final minute.

The Blueshirts final six games at The Garden are versus the Lightning Mar. 13, the Panthers Mar. 17, the Islanders 3/22, the Penguins 3/31, the Flyers April 2 and the Penguins the final day of the season on April 9. All come against teams either in the playoffs or competing for it. None will be easy. Especially given the way they play at home.

Have you ever seen a more fragile team defending home ice that’s playoff bound than the ’16-17 Rangers? It’s easy to forget that after a very successful ’14-15 in which they won the President’s Trophy for home ice advantage throughout the postseason, they lost three of four games at MSG to the Lightning in a heartbreaking Eastern Conference Final. A weirdly played series where there was no such thing as momentum. If there had been, the Rangers carry it forward following a convincing Game 6 rout in Tampa by taking Game 7 and advancing to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final. Instead, they were shutout 2-0 by the Lightning with both Tampa goals coming in a devastating third. They also were blanked in Game 5 by an identical 2-0 and lost Game 2 by a 6-2 count.

If you include last year’s first round exit to the Pens, they’ve dropped five straight playoff games at MSG. After splitting a pair in Pittsburgh, they lost the next two games on home ice getting outscored 8-1. Counting the three previous home playoff defeats against the Lightning, they’ve been outscored 18-3 in the last five home playoff dates. That’s insane.

Talk about home ice disadvantage. How can anyone explain it? Vigneault has the last change. He had a role in it not making good in game adjustments. But what about the players? Why are they so ineffective at the World’s Most Famous Arena? It wasn’t always that way with 2015 Conference Semifinal heroes Chris Kreider, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan stunning the Caps in remarkable fashion. They had Lundqvist too who was significant making huge saves in sudden death of both Games 5 and 7 to help complete the franchise’s second straight second round comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.

In the playoffs, everything gets magnified. Each shift matters. The battle level is so vital. Something Stepan alluded to in his interview Saturday and then today with the team preparing for Tampa. He spoke of working smarter. He has the pulse of the team. Of course, he must snap out of it and start scoring goals. He hasn’t lit the lamp since 1/17. He is reunited with Kreider and Zuccarello. They combined for the lone goal in the third period on Saturday.

At the moment, the team sits comfortably in the first wildcard position with 84 points and 17 games remaining along with 38 ROW. The next closest team is the Islanders with 71 and 18 left following a 5-2 blowout loss at red hot Calgary. They’re competing with the Leafs, Panthers, Lightning and even the Flyers for the final wildcard spot. I have counted out Buffalo following a brutal 4-3 loss in regulation at Pittsburgh. A game which they led 3-0 after one only to see the Pens score four unanswered including a Jake Guentzel backwards redirect that was ruled a legal goal tying it. It probably was due to where the puck touched his stick. Then Justin Schultz set up a wide open Conor Sheary for the stunning game-winner.

While those teams continue to jockey for position, the Rangers remain in good shape. Something Stepan emphasized today. They need to be better and focus on the next four games. As far as whether they earn home ice or not, does it matter? Look how they play in front of our fans. No wonder there’s no atmosphere. Fans were booing them as early as the second period yesterday. They earned it. That’s how dominant Montreal was.

It would be nice if they defended themselves. You can’t let Grade A punk Steve Ott chase J.T. Miller around in the final minute looking to goad him into a fight. That’s unacceptable. It’s pathetic on so many levels. Where is the team toughness? No wonder they recalled Tanner Glass. He can’t save the team from themselves. But at least you know he’ll give maximum effort and finish checks.

Saturday’s embarrassment was the final straw for me. I tuned out after it became 4-1. So, I missed Brendan Gallagher going full Brian Gionta mode and running our goaltender. At least there was a response from Marc Staal. Who else is gonna do it? Not the captain Ryan McDonagh. Smith would because he plays with edge. He wasn’t out there. Nick Holden was out while Ott chased Miller like a clown. Brutal.

For all the talk about how easy target Dan Girardi isn’t the same player and a likely buyout candidate, you know he doesn’t take shifts off. Neither does Kevin Klein, who could be left unprotected and on Las Vegas. Adam Clendening was badly exposed against a relentless Habs attack. I like him but he is suspect defensively as are our elder statesmen.

Will there ever be a home ice advantage at 33rd and 7th Avenue ever again? I am not sure. Much of the crowd has changed. You still have your regulars. But they’re few and far between. The upper part has become a rover section for non-hockey fans to invade our section and go to their seats even if play is going on. So much for waiting for the whistle. No wonder I hardly go anymore. I’ve been to three games all year. I have two left.

I miss the old MSG. A raucous atmosphere where you had more real fans there. The top half wasn’t separated from the bottom allowing you to walk down to ice level following the game. I always enjoyed doing that and looking up at the broadcast booth where Sam and JD did games. Sorry Micheletti. You’re not JD. No one is. He’s irreplaceable. I’m glad ’05-06 allowed the current Columbus Blue Jackets President one final chance to be proud of the team which made it back to the postseason. That was a feel good story. Even if it ended bitterly to the Devils in a sweep, we all loved that team.

Ditto for the following two years where they made the second round pushing the Sabres six led by Lundqvist and Jaromir Jagr before falling in gut wrenching fashion. The new building is nice to look at. Especially from the top where you are basically next to all the retired jerseys of Knicks, Rangers along with championship banners. But it’s not the same building.

That might explain why there isn’t the same vibe. I don’t know if it’ll ever be again. What I do know is the Rangers shouldn’t be this bad defending home ice. This year’s team isn’t hard to play against. They need to up their compete level or we’re looking at another lopsided early exit. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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