Cote: Florida Panthers crush N.Y. Rangers 3-0 in Game 1 as magic of MSG takes another hit | Opinion

Tough times for the wheezing mystique and magic of the venerable Madison Square Garden, “the Mecca,” in New York.

A few days earlier the Knicks failed spectacularly to feel or summon its power in an embarrassing Game 7 elimination NBA playoff loss. Wednesday night, it was the city’s hockey Rangers who also found that a building’s history and lore might prove somewhat useless when the opponent happens to be better.

And so the Florida Panthers quieted “The World’s Most Famous Arena” with a 3-0 victory in Game 1 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals -- stealing home-ice advantage, at least for now, against the team that won the Presidents Trophy with the league’s best regular season record.

Cats star Matthew Tkachuk had scored zero goals in the previous series’ victory over the Boston Bruins.. The malignant what’s-wrong with-Chucky narrative had begun to take root.

“He’s been outstanding. We’re not winning that Boston series without him,” coach Paul Maurice had defended his guy before this series began. “I would never bet against him coming up with some heroics.”

Smart non-bet.

Tkachuk’s goal with 3:34 left in the first period Wednesday, off a pass form Gustav Forsling, made it 1-0 for the only goal Florida would need to begin the first-ever NHL semifinal round in which none of the four surviving teams had won a Stanley Cup in the past 20 years. (Dallas and Edmonton open the West finals Thursday.)

“To take the crowd out of it a little is huge. And playing with the lead is a huge thing.,” Tkachuk said afterward. “But I don’t put pressure on myself to score. It’s not about myself. Guys on our team who didn’t score tonight were some of our best players.”

The Cats’ ability to feel comfortable in uncomfortable environs grew from the ream’s brutally tough training camp.

“Our training camp gets us used to feeling uncomfortable. So when we come into a hostile environment like this, we can handle it,” Tkachuk said. “Coming here against the best team in the league, especially in Game 1 -- it was stacked up against us pretty good. We took that as motivation.”

Captain Aleksander Barkov said Tkachuk’s goal “set the tone. And we followed his lead.”

The Panthers made it 2-0 with 3:48 left in the game when Carter Verhaeghe capitalized on a poorly cleared puck by Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin and his shot caromed in off a defender.

It was 3-0 on Sam Bennett’s empty netter in garbage time.

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped all 23 Rangers shots, some spectacularly, in yet another routine (for him) but sterling performance.

“I can’t say enough about him,” said Verhaeghe of the net-minder. “With him back there we have such confidence.”

Florida’s forecheck and defense were excellent, and so was the shot blocking. In one chunk of the game the Rangers went 14 straight minutes without a shot on goal. Panthers also blocked-out well to let Bob see the puck.

Special teams did not play much factor, as the Cats were 0-for-3 on power plays but effectively killed both of the Rangers’ man-advantage chances.

Florida is now three wins from reaching its second straight Stanley Cup Final entering Game 2 Friday night back at MSG before the best-of-7 series heads south to Sunrise.

This is not to say the Cats will win this series (although it says here they will). This is to say I’d be worried were I a Rangers fan. Because Game 1 was an ass-kicking.

Florida is now 5-2 on road this postseason, and playing with house money (and an ace in hand) entering Game 2.

Panthers-Rangers is not the rivalry Florida had with Tampa Bay and Boston in the earlier rounds. These teams last met in the playoffs in 1997, when some of these players weren’t even born. They met only three times this regular season, the Panthers going 2-1 including a split at MSG.

“But these late stages [of the playoffs] is where rivalries come from,” noted Panther Evan Rodrigues. “The history might not be there, but the intensity will be.”

Part of that: The number of Rangers fans who can be expected in the Sunrise rink starting with Game 3 on Sunday, considering the throngs of transplanted New Yorkers living in South Florida.

Said Maurice: “There will be parts of [the Rangers’] game that will be way better next game.”

“Next game will be a lot tougher,” said Barkov.

Maurice and his guys had made a point of mentioning in media sessions all week how the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy, had the best regular season record, owned home-ice advantage, and also how loud and storied Madison Square Garden is -- stuff you say when strategically meaning to put the pressure on the other team.

It allows the Cats to somehow play the underdog card even though, albeit narrowly, they are the betting favorite in this series by most sportsbooks despite all of the above being true.

The national media worship over the aura of MSG as a story line has delighted me in a smirk-y kind of way. How’d that secret power work for the Knicks in Game 7 the other day!? It’s an arena, folks. A building. Happens to be in the Big Apple. Has a history, sure. But it’s still just an ice or wood floor unless the home team can make it more than that.

Front Office Sports, a prominent business-side website, had a piece Wednesday under the headline, ‘Will NHL get dream Stanley Cup Final?’ The suggestion: The NHL and America at large want Rangers vs. Edmonton -- the biggest media market, New York, vs. the game’s consensus greatest current player in Connor McDavid.

That “would most certainly be the preferred scenario for NHL stakeholders,” wrote FOS.

Fortunately, the wishes of commissioners, TV executives, websites and fans weigh nothing. If they did, the Knicks would not have choked in a Game 7 home playoff loss in the same building where the Rangers play.

The first two rounds of the NHL playoffs have been the most-watched in NHL history, while NBA playoff viewership (though still larger) is down 11 percent from last year.

Hockey will continue to do just fine if New York continues not lifting the Cup.

Maurice had said coming into this road start to the East finals, “Our road game isn’t something that we fear.”

Perhaps the Rangers should?

Maurice also had said he believed all of the NHL’s final four teams were elite and had a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and that the opening game would be a test, a time for each to answer, ‘Do you believe this chance is real?”

The Florida Panthers just answered, and did it loud.

The chance is real.