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Before this postseason began, the Rangers fielded lots of questions about the 2020 bubble playoffs, where they were swept in the qualifying round in three games by the Hurricanes, now their upcoming second-round opponent.
In the eyes of the NHL, those three games in Toronto counted as a playoff appearance for this Rangers team. Technically, star goalie Igor Shesterkin, the reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, his defensive partner Ryan Lindgren, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko all made their NHL postseason debuts in that bizarre expanded tournament format inside a fan-free Scotiabank Arena.
It probably shouldn’t count. The qualifying round gave a few extra teams a chance to make it into the 16-team dance for the Stanley Cup because the coronavirus pandemic suspended the final three weeks of the 2019-20 regular season.
Alas, the three-game sweep — in which the Rangers were outscored 11-4, outplayed in all three zones and out-hustled in every facet of the game — counts against this Rangers team.
But if you ask the Rangers, it doesn’t feel like it counts. After the Rangers’ triple-overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 1 of Round 1, Fox said he considered that to be his first-ever playoff contest. He, as well as a couple of other Rangers, pointed to the difference in the atmosphere and general feeling of the game compared to what it was like in the bubble.
“I think it was a level of intensity, I’d say in those games,” said Jacob Trouba, who was in his first season with the Rangers when they went to the bubble. “That’s something that we might be able to draw off of. But it’s here in a building packed with fans and it’s a different atmosphere, everything is going to be different. With no fans in the building, it’s a different game, I think.
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“I don’t think there’s a ton to take from it. I think it’s a new season, we have a very different team. I would say the page is pretty much turned from that.”
Added Artemi Panarin, who was also in the first year in New York at the time: “I don’t hear anything in the locker room about bubble, so. Maybe I’m not English enough. We try to forget [that, probably]. But learn, too. Something. I think it’s a different situation right now. Play in the bubble without fans and all that stuff. It’s playoffs and not playoff, three games.”
Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant was relieved of his coaching duties in Vegas in January 2020, two months before COVID-19 brought the sports world to a halt. He said he watched a lot of the bubble playoffs, but didn’t remember much about the Rangers-Hurricanes series.
Regardless, Gallant doesn’t plan to show any tape from the Rangers’ qualifying-round loss to Carolina.
“They didn’t do too well, I don’t think,” he said. “That means not a thing. We played them four times this year, you know what, they outplayed us at least three of those games, for sure. That means nothing to me right now. We’re a confident team right now, we feel good about our team. We just beat a hell of a good Pittsburgh team, I know they had some injuries, but we beat a hell of a good team and we found ways to win in battles. That’s all that matters going forward.”
Coincidentally, three former Blueshirts who were on the roster during that bubble matchup with the Hurricanes are now playing for Carolina. Jesper Fast, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith will all be on the other side this time around. Brady Skjei, meanwhile, faced his former team in the bubble after being traded to Carolina mid-season and injured Fast with a big hit in Game 1.
The Rangers may have gone 1-3 against the Hurricanes during the regular season, but to echo Gallant, that means nothing now. The Rangers gave Carolina a run for the Metropolitan Division title but fell short. Now, they have a chance to put the 2020 bubble playoffs narrative to bed and surpass the Hurricanes where it matters, and get to the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I don’t think they look at our team and say, ‘Well, this is going to be an easy series,’ ” Gallant said. “I think when we’re ready to play, we’re as good a team as anybody in this league and we’ve proven that. We’re never going to quit, we’re going to battle hard and I think it’s going to be a hell of a series.”