NEW YORK — The New York Rangers entered Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals with their adrenaline still pumping since Monday’s Game 7 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Tampa Bay Lightning, on the other hand, hit the ice for the first time since sweeping the Florida Panthers on May 23.
Their respective layoffs came in the Rangers’ 6-2 loss to the Lightning on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden to take a 1-0 series lead.
“There was a lot of sharpness [for us]. As we talked about, our team continued. We had the day off, we played a game and it went well for us tonight,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant. “Obviously they were a bit rusty tonight. They weren’t the same, being nine days off. It makes a difference.”
His counterpart, Jon Cooper, also noted this rust.
“We were maybe a bit tired as the game went on. We hadn’t played a game for a while here,” he said. “But that’s no excuse from us. I give Rangers full marks for their play.”
The Lightning players also weren’t looking to use the layoff as a defense for their lack of defense.
“We definitely didn’t do our best,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It is what it is. We are not a group that is going to use that as an excuse. We have to be better.”
The game was billed as a goalie duel between the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who earned playoff MVP honors for back-to-back Stanley Cup champions last summer, and the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin, who is expected to win the Vézina trophy as a league player. best goalkeeper this season.
Instead, Rangers scored more goals in a game than Vasilevskiy had allowed in his previous five games combined.
New York was on the Lightning from the opening 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 7:18 from the first.
“The first goal sucks. But I think we bounced back well,” Cooper said. “But I think there are things we did tonight that we didn’t do a lot in the previous two rounds. Rangers have dynamic players. You give them an inch and they take a mile.”
In the second period, forward Frank Vatrano rushed to break up an odd run from the Lightning and then fired a shot over Vasilevskiy to take the lead. The Lightning responded again, just 42 seconds later, on a goal from Ondrej Palat. But 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, then finishing over two minutes of offensive zone time for Rangers with an instant shot past Vasilevskiy at 15:43.
Rangers didn’t let go in the third, scoring 30 seconds into the period on a shot from Artemi Panarin, then striking for the first time on the power play on Mika Zibanejad’s eighth playoff goal.
“Turk rolls them,” Cooper said of Gallant and his team. “They failed to get to where they are in the playoffs.”
Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said the Rangers are also a different team than the Lightning saw in the regular season.
“Yeah, kinda. They’ve got good goaltenders, good D-body, acquisitions that we haven’t seen in their jerseys,” he said.
The Lightning last played the Rangers on March 19, before the NHL trade deadline. Since then, New York has added forwards Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte, as well as defenseman Justin Braun. Rangers also found line combinations that clicked in the playoffs, such as the “Kid Line”.
“You know, they’re rolling. After that big win over Carolina, they were confident for tonight’s game. We expected that,” Hedman said.
Cooper also noted the differences between Rangers, but said that in the end it was always the familiar names that made the difference in Game 1.
“They made some additions. They have a good squad,” he said. “But it was always all the guys that had been here for a while that had their fingerprints on the scoresheet,” he said.
Some big names have been left off the Lightning roster, like Nikita Kucherov, Hedman and Brandon Hagel. They didn’t look like the team that beat the Panthers in the second round. But Cooper said they’ve already started the series off on the wrong foot, and there’s no need to panic.
“It’s Game 1. We’ve been through this before. We won playoffs when we lost Game 1 and won playoffs when we won Game 1,” he said.
Game 2 is scheduled for Friday night in New York.