Playing at Madison Square Garden is a dream many professional athletes have, and it might be even more special for Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, a Syracuse, New York native who is preparing to play against his favorite childhood team Thursday night.
“Growing up being from Upstate New York, having the Rangers be my favorite team growing up, it’s always special when you get to go to play at MSG,” Howard said. “I think it’s one of the best places to play in the NHL.”
Although defenseman Niklas Kronwall might argue that Madison Square Garden isn’t the best venue to play at, he still understands how special it is to have an opportunity to do so.
"I wish the ice was a little better,” Kronwall said. “They do have 500 events a year or whatever. It's hard to keep the ice, obviously, at the best conditions but they do as good of a job as they can. Maybe now, who knows? They've kind of rebuilt it a little bit and renovated it. Maybe it's better now.
"It's very special. It's a very special place, no doubt about it."
The Rangers host the Red Wings tonight in their second of three meetings this season, and the first of two at Madison Square Garden. New York defeated Detroit 3-2 in overtime at The Joe in October and boasts a 3-1-1 record in the last five games.
"It seems like they've been playing some hockey here the last few weeks,” Kronwall said. “They're back in the game. They had a little sluggish start, if I'm not mistaken. I think they've been really coming around. It seems like they've been finding their game a little bit more here as of late."
With an overall record of 24-21-3, the Rangers rank fourth in the Metropolitan Division standings and eighth in the Eastern Conference. Although they don’t have an outstanding home record (10-11-3), Howard knows how dangerous Detroit’s Original Six foe can be.
“The defensemen are jumping in the play constantly,” Howard said. “They’re playing a lot more open style of hockey compared to what they have in the past when they were a lot more defensive-minded. I’m not saying they’re not now but it seems like the defensemen are jumping up more in the play from watching them on TV. (Henrik) Lundqvist seems to be playing a lot better as of late. He’s the one that drives the bus for that team. We’re going to have to find a way to make his life difficult.”
Team Sweden’s 2014 Olympic goaltender is 3-1-0 in the last four games he’s appeared in and an important contributor to New York’s penalty kill, which is ninth-best in the NHL. Detroit’s ability to manage the game will be key against the Rangers and their stifling penalty kill.
“I just think your ability to get it back is so critical to having a successful power play,” coach Mike Babcock said. “If you want to have a scoring chance and have success you have to win face-offs, you’ve got to be in the offensive zone, you got to get the puck back. You have to be shooting and we can’t be passing it around the outside. You’ve got to get it in the inside.”
While the Rangers have scored a power-play goal in five of their last six games, the Red Wings have struggled to capitalize on special team opportunities in 2014. The team’s power play hasn’t netted a goal since Dec. 30 in Nashville and is 0-21 in the past five games.
"No doubt, that's obviously one of the things that we have to be really good at and it's something that hasn't been clicking as well as we would have liked,” Kronwall said. “It's something we've been working on the last few days. And of course, just generating more offense. In saying that, we can't give up anything on defense as well. Just try to generate more second and third chances."
Generating more scoring opportunities is one of the main things Babcock is looking for against the Rangers.
“I’d like to see us get it on the inside,” Babcock said. “I like to see us shoot the puck and actually want to be a shooter. I want to see us get some second chances.”