‘It’s a special place’: Panthers confident despite starting series on road vs. Rangers

FORT LAUDERDALE — The Florida Panthers‘ run back to the Stanley Cup Final will continue at “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and it will be loud.

Florida heads to New York to face off with the Rangers, who won the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points in the regular season, in the Eastern Conference finals. Game 1 starts at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden.

“It’s a loud building,” said Panthers defenseman Niko Mikkola, who previously played for the Rangers. “We all know that and like it. It’s a special place to play hockey. I don’t think there’s anything better than playing against New York right now.”

Although the Garden will be rocking for the first game of the conference finals, Panthers forward Evan Rodrigues said the team is not intimidated. They are coming off a series in which they won three games at Boston’s TD Garden.

“I played there a couple years ago, and it’s a pretty loud building,” Rodrigues said. “Loud anthem, loud fans, raucous goal song. It’s just a really cool place to play, and I think we’ll embrace it, embrace the challenge and look forward to it.”

Of course, the building alone is not the main challenge. The team that plays in it is. The Rangers won 55 games and finished the season with 114 points. They cruised past the Washington Capitals in the first round and got out to an early series lead against the Carolina Hurricanes. Like the Panthers, New York needed six games to put its second-round opponent away before beating the Hurricanes with a four-goal third period in Game 6.

“They were the best team in the regular season for a reason, and it’s showing through the playoffs,” Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour said. “They’ve got the confidence, obviously, up front. They get to the net hard and the dirty areas, and they obviously have a lot of skill, too. So a team that you always have to play hard all over the ice because you know they’re going to get their chances, and you’ve obviously got to limit those.”

In addition to star skaters like Artemi Panarin, Chris Krieder, Adam Fox and former Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, the Rangers boast one of the top goalies in the NHL: Igor Shesterkin.

Shesterkin, a 28-year-old Russian and former Vezina Trophy winner, has a 2.40 goals against average and a .923 save percentage in the postseason.

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The Panthers, of course, have fellow former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky in net. Bobrovsky’s goals against average is .03 better than Shesterkin’s.

“It’s a great matchup,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

But past success does not guarantee what will happen in the future. Maurice said teams have to constantly reinvent themselves in the postseason.

“Everything becomes new and you reinvent yourself every series,” Maurice said. “For us to have a chance to beat the Presidents Trophy winner, we have to be a better team right now than we were when we started the playoffs. We have to have learned a bunch of things. We have to have suffered some defeats and some adversity, and we have to be better than we were when we started. I think we are, and that gets tested every round.”

Florida will have a chance to see if it is better than it was weeks ago. Just the Rangers stand between the Panthers and a second-consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

“You always see that it’s the next round, but again, this is a big team, a big test for us,” Montour said. “Obviously, to get to the next round, we’ve got to take care of business here.”