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Hartnett: Rangers Are Far From Done; Their Biggest Strength Is Resiliency

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

New Yorkers have waited 20 years for the Stanley Cup Final to return to “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” A charged-up Madison Square Garden will host Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final as the Rangers look to turn the tide in their favor after dropping the opening two games of the series at Staples Center.

Rangers defenseman John Moore expects the Garden to be in full voice when the puck drops on Monday night.

“We know our fans are going to be rocking,” Moore said. “It doesn’t get any bigger than
this. We’re going to expect them to be loud and be behind us.”

Dustin Brown’s Game 2 double-overtime winner hasn’t dented the Rangers’ confidence. The Rangers have blown two-goal leads in consecutive games and suffered two cruel overtime defeats. Yet, the Rangers aren’t showing any signs of a deflated mentality.

“We never quit all season,” center Derick Brassard said. “We always showed some character. I think
it’s not going to be any different for this series. I think, like I said earlier, we show to ourselves that we can play with those guys, that we can beat those guys.”

Whenever the Rangers have reached what appears to be their breaking point, they have found a way of turning their emotion into a rallying spirit and driven focus.

“The story all playoffs is being in the moment,” Moore said. “Nothing really changes. All we can do now is be ready for that next opportunity.”

“As a team, we’re confident, we’ll stick together,” winger Mats Zuccarello said. “We have to win two at home to even the series.”

All of the Game 2 heartbreak suffered by the Rangers is already far in their rearview mirror.

The costly turnovers committed by Brad Richards and Ryan McDonagh. Henrik Lundqvist’s anguish after Dwight King’s apparent goaltender interference was not recognized by officials on a momentum-shifting third-period goal. Richards being unable to lift the puck on a glorious chance. Chris Kreider, Zuccarello and Brassard each coming tantalizingly close to scoring in the first overtime and, of course, Brown’s double-overtime winner.

All of this is already ancient history.

That’s because the Rangers are wearing an unshakeable self-belief underneath their sweaters and their skin. There isn’t any carryover momentum that stretches from game to game. Every game is a clean slate for this team because playoff elder statesmen including Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Moore have established a dressing room culture of “quickly turning the page” confidence.

“We got a lot of leaders on our team, guys that have been a part of winning teams and playoff runs,” Zuccarello said. “Yeah, I think we learn a little bit about the past series and just go from there.”

The Rangers must clean up the mistakes that plagued them in Games 1 and 2. Should they limit their turnovers and cut down on undisciplined penalties, the Blueshirts are capable of turning this series around given their brand of uptempo, defense-stretching hockey than has a tendency to cause problems for the slower-skating Kings.

ZUCCARELLO LEADING THE WAY; POULIOT-BRASSARD-ZUCC LINE CONTINUES TO BE BLUESHIRTS’ MOST CONSISTENT AND DOMINANT LINE

Zuccarello was everywhere in Game 2, making a significant impact across all areas of the ice. The pint-sized Norwegian is playing a game much larger than what his 5-foot-7, 179-pound frame would suggest.

Zuccarello’s underrated strength was evident when he scored at 18:48 of the first period. The diminutive winger camped out on Jonathan Quick’s left post and capitalized on a doorstep rebound. 6-foot-3, 224-pound forward Anze Kopitar was unable to outmuscle the Norwegian ace.

With that goal, Zuccarello became the first Norwegian to score a Stanley Cup Final goal. After taking an undisciplined tripping penalty that led to a power-play goal by Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, Zuccarello quickly atoned for his mistake. Seconds later, Zuccarello won the puck off Mitchell behind Quick’s net and fed goal-scoring linemate Brassard.

Zuccarello finished Game 2 with one goal, one assist, two points, three shots, six hits, two blocked shots and a plus-two rating. He’s taking full advantage of his first taste of a Stanley Cup Final and proving why he’s one of the Rangers’ best all-around talents.

All season long and throughout the playoffs, the Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line has clearly been the Rangers’ most productive and consistent forward line. Both Zuccarello and Brassard are upcoming restricted free agents, while Benoit Pouliot would become an unrestricted free agent when his one-year, $1.3 million contract expires this summer. Zuccarello signed a one-year, $1.15 million contract last summer. Brassard is earning $3.7 million in the final year of a four-year contract that averaged $3.2 million in annual average value. All three linemates are deserving of a raise this summer.

MCDONAGH IS ON FIRE; RANGERS’ D-MAN MATCHING DOUGHTY’S OFFENSIVE OUTPUT

For all the deserved talk of how excellent Kings defenseman Drew Doughty has performed during these playoffs, McDonagh has matched him every step of the way. Doughty has tallied 17 points through 23 playoff games, while McDonagh has collected 16 points through 22 playoff games.

Ahead of Game 3, McDonagh is riding a five-game point streak and five-game assist streak. The 24-year-old defenseman has scored one goal and contributed six assists for seven points during this stretch.

McDonagh has also notched 13 points over the Rangers’ past seven road playoff games. That’s only bettered by the legendary Bobby Orr, who scored 15 points over a seven-game stretch for the Boston Bruins during the 1972 Cup-winning season. Interestingly, McDonagh’s total is one better than Brian Leetch’s 12 points in a seven-game span during the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup triumph. Leetch ended up lifting the Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Aside from a rare turnover in Game 2, McDonagh has been a rock-solid presence on the Rangers’ blue line and has taken his offensive feats to new heights.

GABORIK LOOKING FORWARD TO GARDEN RETURN

Former Ranger Marian Gaborik is set to play his first game at Madison Square Garden as a visiting player since March 24, 2009. Back then, Gaborik was a member of the Minnesota Wild. After three-and-a-half productive seasons in New York, the Rangers sent Gaborik to the Blue Jackets at the 2013 trade deadline, acquiring Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett from Columbus.

A multitude of injuries have prevented Gaborik from previous opportunities to return to MSG as a visitor. Now, the popular ex-Ranger will enter the building he once called home under the most intense of spotlights.

“It’s my first time coming back to the Garden after I got traded,” Gaborik said. “I’m going to see the Garden after all the renovations for the first time, as well. You know, they have great fans. They’re going to be supporting them.  We’re going to come out hard.”

After an injury-plagued stint in Columbus, Gaborik has been an ideal fit with the Kings. Through 23 games, Gaborik has scored a league-best 13 playoff goals. He has formed a devastating partnership on L.A.’s top line alongside playoff point leader Kopitar and rugged captain Brown.

Gaborik admitted that playing at the Garden gives him an “extra jump.”

“I don’t think I met or talked to any player that didn’t like to play in the Garden,” Gaborik said. “Definitely the building has a lot of history. Everybody that goes and plays there, it has that extra jump. Just to look around the building itself, it has some sort of energy that you want to be in there and you want to just play. A lot of our guys, the whole team, will have that energy. We are going to come out strong.”

The 32-year-old winger is at full health and is again playing with the quick burst that made him one of the fastest players in the NHL. Gaborik has been tormenting opposing goaltenders throughout the playoffs with his jets and rapid wrist-shot. During his time in New York, Gaborik boasted about how he would always get the better of Lundqvist in practice. Lundqvist wasn’t at fault when Gaborik scored a persistent tying goal at 7:36 of the third period during Game 2. McDonagh’s turnover and Kreider’s failed clearance contributed to Gaborik pulling the game level. The intriguing duel between Gaborik and Lundqvist will be something worth keeping a close eye on as the series progresses.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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