Dave Hyde: Panthers get split they wanted in New York, now come home with series up for grabs

Before the puck drops Sunday afternoon, they should turn down the lights in the arena, have the scoreboard go black and the crowd go quiet before putting up three words:

“Now we’re home.”

Now the Florida Panthers don’t have to deal with Madison Square Garden, as much fun as they seem to have on the road. Now they get the energy from the building on their side, though there will always be a New York borough in the arena. South Florida never changes.

Sunday afternoon the Panthers get the kind of Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals that will nudge the series one way. Tuesday’s Game 4 can move it for one team even further. Both the Panthers and Rangers think they’re that team right now, and both have the portfolio to think that way, too.

The Panthers played as good in Game 1 as they’ve played in two years of winning playoff hockey. The Rangers got the kind of goal in Game 2’s overtime that great seasons get, the kind the Panthers always had gotten of late.

So, this wasn’t just compelling and dramatic hockey setting the table for what’s coming Sunday. It was familiar hockey to the Panthers. Game 2 was the eighth overtime playoff game for the Panthers in the past two years. Their record in those previous seven games?

They were 7-0.

Make it 7-1.

Make it a series, too, tied at one game apiece. It’s tough, tight hockey, just as you’d expect in an Eastern final. Both goalies, the Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky and the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin, have had their moments. Each team has won stretches.

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The Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov has been best player in the series, even if his two best offensive plays on Friday — a give-and-go he just missed scoring on; a pass where Sam Reinhart missed — resulted in no goals. That’s how it works sometimes.

“Too big, too strong, the Rangers have no answer for him right now,” former Rangers captain Mark Messier said of Barkov on ESPN after the second period.

You saw what the Panthers’ physical play and fast forechecking did leading into Game 2. It made New York coach Peter Laviolette insert a rookie, Matt Rempe, who averaged five minutes of ice time and scored one goal all season.

Rempe, at 6 foot 8, has a one-dimensional game. He hits people. He brings energy. Laviolette saw his team needed that after Game 1.

“I haven’t paid that much attention to (Remke) … as you guys have,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Big physical guy, gets in on forecheck.

Maurice shrugged. He gave an emoji face — head tilted, mouth scrunched — of indifference.

Rempe got a few solid hits in Game 2. He did his job. It didn’t quite match Ryan Lomberg, whose license plate the Rangers are still trying to read. Lomberg flattened Rangers star Mika Zibanejad and knocked Jimmy Vesey out of the game in Game 2.

Lomberg also had five shots while Rempe was applauded for just winning a face-off. Maybe that shows the talent differential down the lineup. Can the Panthers make their depth matter as the series lengthens?

Rempe did one vital thing in Game 2: He brought the crowd into the night. He gave Madison Square Garden energy, and the Rangers needed that energy. Can they find it on the road Sunday?

These Panthers haven’t cared where they play in the playoffs the past two years. They’re 9-6 at home and 13-6 on the road. This postseason, they’re 4-2 at home and 5-2 on the road. So, maybe home ice means nothing to this team.

Maybe they’ll try to make it mean something Sunday anyway. They haven’t played at home, after all, in a couple of weeks. They closed the Boston series on the road. Then was nearly a week break before the two games in New York.

“They obviously feed off their crowd,” Panthers center Kevin Stenlund said. “They play well at home. So do we. Speaking for (the team), we’re happy to get back and play in front of our crowd.”

What you have coming into Game 3 are two teams trying to find an edge, any edge. A hit. A save. Any moment to separate this series. Maybe just thinking the home ice matters makes it matter, too.