NEW YORK – The New York Rangers entered Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals with their adrenaline still pumping from Monday’s Game 7 win at the Carolina Hurricanes. The Tampa Bay Lightning, in contrast, hit the ice for the first time since completing a sweep of the Florida Panthers way back on May 23.
Their respective layoffs showed in the Rangers’ 6-2 romp over the Lightning on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden to take a 1-0 series lead.
“There was a lot of sharpness [for us]. Like we talked about, our team just kept going. We got a day off, we played a game, and it really looked good for us tonight, “Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.” Obviously, they were a little bit rusty tonight. They weren’t the same, being nine days off. It makes a difference. “
His counterpart, Jon Cooper, noted that rustiness, too.
“We might have gotten a little tired as the game went on. We hadn’t played in a game in a while here,” he said. “But that’s no excuse on our part. I give the Rangers full marks on their game.”
The Lightning players weren’t looking to use the layoff as a defense for their lack of defense, either.
“We certainly didn’t have our best,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It is what it is. We’re not a group that’s going to use that as an excuse. We have to be better.”
The game was billed as a goaltending duel between the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won playoff MVP honors for the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions last summer, and the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin, who is expected to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender this season.
Instead, the Rangers scored more goals in one game than Vasilevskiy had surrendered in his previous five games combined.
New York was on the Lightning from the first moments of the game, as Chris Kreider scored on a Tampa Bay turnover just 1:11 into regulation for his ninth of the season. But Stamkos scored the equalizer at 7:18 of the first.
“The first goal, it sucks. But I thought we rebounded well,” Cooper said. “But I think there were things that we did tonight that we didn’t do much in the previous two rounds. The Rangers have some dynamic players. You give them an inch, and they take a mile.”
In the second period, forward Frank Vatrano raced back to break up a Lightning odd-man rush and later snapped a shot over Vasilevskiy for the lead. The Lightning again answered, just 42 seconds later, on an Ondrej Palat goal. But the Rangers’ “Kid Line” struck twice in just over five minutes to put New York ahead for good. Filip Chytil scored both his sixth and seventh of the playoffs, beating Vasilevskiy at 10:09 and then ending over two minutes of offensive zone time for the Rangers with a snap shot past Vasilevskiy at 15:43.
The Rangers didn’t let up in the third, scoring 30 seconds into the period on an Artemi Panarin shot and then striking for the first time on the power play on Mika Zibanejad’s eighth goal of the playoffs.
“Turk’s got them rolling,” Cooper said of Gallant and his team. “They didn’t fluke their way to where they are in the playoffs.”
Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said the Rangers are also a different team than the one the Lightning saw in the regular season.
“Yeah, a little bit. They have strong goaltending, a good D-corps, some acquisitions that we haven’t seen in their jerseys,” he said.
The Lightning last faced the Rangers on March 19, before the NHL trade deadline. Since then, New York added forwards Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte, as well as defenseman Justin Braun. The Rangers also found some line combinations that have clicked in the postseason, such as the “Kid Line.”
“You know, they’re rolling. Coming off that big win against Carolina, they were confident coming into tonight’s game. We expected that,” Hedman said.
Cooper noted the differences in the Rangers, too, but said in the end it was still familiar names who made the difference in Game 1.
“They’ve made some adds. They have a good team,” he said. “But it was still all the guys that have been around here for a while that had their fingerprints on the scoresheet,” he said.
Some significant names were kept off the scoresheet for the Lightning, like Nikita Kucherov, Hedman and Brandon Hagel. They didn’t look like the team that rolled through the Panthers in the second round. But Cooper said they’ve started series off on the wrong foot before, and there’s no need for panic.
“It’s Game 1. We’ve been through this before. We’ve won the series when we’ve lost the first game and won the series when we won the first game,” he said.
Game 2 is scheduled for Friday night in New York.