Derick Brassard scores the second-fastest goal in Rangers’ playoff history 28 seconds into the game.
Can a best-of-seven playoff series be settled in the first 28 seconds of Game 1? Doesn’t seem possible, but then maybe you had to be there on Thursday night at the Garden during the Rangers’ 2-1 victory over Pittsburgh.
Just minutes after the anthem, moments after the opening faceoff, Rick Nash zoomed down the left side, ripping a shot at Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, which was meant to do exactly what it did: create a sloppy rebound for Derick Brassard, flying alone into the slot.
“If you watch our practice, you’ll see that play,” Brassard said, explaining that Nash’s shot was really a pass. “We got ’em spread out in the neutral zone. I was wide open.”
Brassard finished his chance for the second-fastest playoff goal in Ranger history (missing Ed Hospodar’s 1981 record in Los Angeles by a mere second). In one fell swoop, the Rangers had demonstrated their dominance in speed, discipline, defense and goaltending.
“I’m 39, I don’t care how far we came last year, you still get butterflies,” Martin St. Louis said. “You get that first goal, it puts you at ease a little bit. It definitely gave us momentum.”
There was a second goal in that period by Ryan McDonagh and a slew of four, frantic penalties by the Penguins. Sidney Crosby admitted the Pens played far too tentatively at first. It was almost sad watching Pittsburgh chase the Rangers around the rink, grabbing and slashing, never quite reaching the puck before it came right back down the pike at them.
Pittsburgh became more competitive late in the game, but the Rangers stayed within themselves and didn’t bite on potential penalties.
“I’d rather we play whistle to whistle, stay out of it,” Alain Vigneault said about the rough stuff that led to five Pittsburgh penalties, and only one on the Rangers. “We’re not going to get involved.”
The Rangers finished with a 38-25 shots-on-goal advantage. The flow of play suggested a short first-round series, nothing at all like the desperate struggle last spring between these same two franchises.
OK, maybe it’s too early to print and distribute the Pens’ obit, but not by much. Give them one more game to recover, or then deliver the eulogy. The simplistic dynamics of this matchup were clear from the start: The Penguins are a top-heavy bunch, with two superstars and a lot of roster filler. They barely made the postseason. Their goalie, Fleury, can be good or bad on any given night. Flip a coin. He was very good on Thursday, or else the score might have been far more one-sided.
The Rangers, meanwhile, come at you in rapid waves and rolling lines. Their defense is young and solid. They don’t take stupid penalties very often.
“You want to try to outnumber them as much as you can,” Vigneault said. “I was looking for numbers and pace.”
Henrik Lundqvist, no longer aching, appeared particularly sharp early on, anticipating angles and puck movement around the crease. In the third period, when the Penguins’ top line finally put together a flurry of shots, the crowd chanted, “Hen-rik,” in appreciation of their goalie’s acrobatics. Mostly, though, the players in front of Lundqvist kept him out of dire trouble.
“We controlled the game really well for the first 20 to 30 minutes,” Lundqvist said. “We did a great job of keeping them to the outside when we needed to make some big blocks on the penalty kill in the second. It was a good start. You start with one and you try to feel good about yourself. But it’s just one.”
Everything is in working order for the Rangers, who are a cut above virtually everyone right now on paper, and ice. Before the game, Vigneault somehow attempted to portray the Rangers as some sort of underdog, as a squad of Rockys on hockey skates.
“We’ve obviously lost some very important pieces from last year’s team to this year,” Vigneault said. “The hockey community had us, before the season started, fighting to get into the playoffs.”
Nobody is saying anything nasty now about the Presidents’ Trophy winners, and Vigneault knows it. Before Game 1, the Rangers were made 5-to-1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup by the bookies, who know best. The Pens, despite those intimidating figures of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, went off at 16-to-1.
The two teams regroup now, adjust, and the Penguins must be ready from the very start of Game 2, not from the start of the second period.
They made that flat-footed mistake already once, and didn’t get away with it.
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