Florida Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu told SiriusXM NHL Wednesday that he’d prefer to face the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs because of the Rangers’ “great, world-class goalie.”
The Blueshirts’ intimidating postseason reputation persists despite frequent setbacks this season, with the latest being injuries to starting defensemen Ryan McDonagh (right hand, out until at least the playoffs) and Dan Girardi (upper-body, day-to-day).
The driving force behind Cifu’s reluctance is Henrik Lundqvist, whom the media has voted Team MVP for a franchise record eighth time. Lundqvist said the Rangers should be more concentrated on how they are playing than on who they are playing — either the Pittsburgh Penguins or Florida Panthers — in the first round starting next week.
“Right now you just focus on yourself, really,” Lundqvist said Thursday morning at the Garden prior to the Rangers (99 points, two to play) battling the Islanders (97 points, three to play) for playoff seeding. “I know at this time of year you get a lot of quotes from different people, and you try just to focus on your own job.”
“There are a lot of questions about who we want to face, but I think the focus right now is to just feel good about your game today, the next game and going into the playoffs,” he added. “And then whoever you face, you deal with it.”
Shane Prince celebrates a goal as the Islanders take all four games from the Rangers this season.
Both matchups intrigue Lundqvist, though. On the one hand, the Panthers’ BB&T Center is one of those road arenas that often feels more like a home rink for the Rangers, thanks to thousands of transplant fans.
“We always have great support there, and I’ve never played them in the playoffs, so it’d be a new experience,” Lundqvist said of the Panthers.
On the other hand, Lundqvist laughed when it was suggested that the competitive Swede probably prefers the hostile environment in Pittsburgh, where he famously morphed into a brick wall to win Game 7 of an incredible 2014 second-round comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
“I like both teams for different reasons, to play them,” Lundqvist said with a smile. “So we’ll leave it at that.”
Casey Cizikas scores a second period goal en route to a 4-1 victory Thursday night.
Lundqvist isn’t the only revered Swede in the locker room these days, though: The Rangers voted Jesper Fast the winner of this season’s Players’ Player Award, which recognizes the teammate who best exemplifies what it means to be a team player.
“I voted for him. He’s a great team guy,” fellow Swede Viktor Stalberg said. “He blocks shots, he works hard, and I think he’s appreciated for doing his job and going about it quietly.”
The 24-year-old Fast, a 2010 sixth-round pick, has quickly become a nuisance to opponents in his second full NHL season. Last week, Hurricanes coach Bill Peters named him among a handful of quick and dangerous Ranger forwards that Carolina was game-planning to stop.
Told of Peters grouping him with Chris Kreider and Rick Nash, Fast remained humble.
Panthers owner doesn’t want to face Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who struggles Thursday, allowing three goals.
“He must have been talking about somebody else,” the young right winger said.
Fast added Thursday that he was “very proud” of the honor, attributing his growth — at least partially — to comfort speaking English and assimilating into a new culture and organization.
“Of course coming from Sweden (learning) a new language, me as a person (I was) probably holding back a little bit at the beginning, not expressing myself too much,” Fast said. “But getting to know the guys, the coaches and how everything works makes you more comfortable and (makes it) easier to express yourself.”