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Brassard, McDonagh lead Rangers over Penguins for Game 1 win

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RANGERS 2, PENGUINS 1

Game 1 slipped from becoming potential blowout victory into a nail-biting exercise for all of the Garden’s fans. But a win is a win, thanks to early goals from Derick Brassard and Ryan McDonagh in a 2-1 Game 1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to take a 1-0 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Henrik Lundqvist made 24 saves.

The top overall NHL seed Rangers (113 points) hadn’t played a game that truly mattered in exactly three weeks, since clinching a playoff berth in Ottawa. They hadn’t played a game that mattered at all in nine days, since clinching Presidents’ Trophy in Newark on April 7.

The second-wild card Penguins (98 points) were relentless and persistent, and Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 36 shots. But Brassard’s goal 28 seconds in got the party started in the hosts’ favor, and McDOnagh’s power play goal made the difference.

One thing to watch, though: The Rangers held on to the lead in a tight third period despite losing top-pair defenseman Dan Girardi (assist) with 9:29 remaining after a Chris Kunitz shot ticked off Girardi’s stick on the left wing and hit him in the right side of his face. He left for the locker room seemingly shaken up.

Game 2 will be Saturday night at the Garden.

Despite the Rangers jumping all over the Penguns in the first period for a 2-0 lead, Pittsburgh charged back to win the second period and halve the deficit to 2-1 entering the third.

Former Islander Blake Comeau scored on a rebound at 6:15 of the second off assists from Ben Lovejoy and Nick Spaling. He comprised a line with Spaling and Max Lapierre that gave the Rangers fits, on a team perhaps less skilled than previous Penguins rosters but more workmanlike, like their division rival Columbus Blue Jackets.

Brassard’s line with Nash and Zuccarello, though responsible for both Ranger first-period goals, did not have an effective night, mainly due to the wingers. Zuccarello committed several giveaways.

Derek Stepan’s line did way less. Kevin Hayes’ line was so-so but created a few chances, and right wing Martin St. Louis played well. Dominic Moore’s fourth line, meanwhile, may have generated the most consistent forecheck.

Pittsburgh’s goal was scored against Brassard’s line, after Lundqvist allowed a long rebound, Lapierre tied up defenseman Dan Boyle at net-front, and Comeau raced to the puck, chased by Brassard with Marc Staal on the wall.

Boyle’s turnovers, though, were so especially frequent, blatant and unacceptable that coach Alain Vigenault has to be counting the days until the return of top-four defenseman Kevin Klein (broken left arm), who missed Game 1 but is five weeks into a 4-to-6-week rehab.

Henrik Lundqvist stops 24 shots as the Rangers go up 1-0 in the opening series vs. the Penguins.Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Henrik Lundqvist stops 24 shots as the Rangers go up 1-0 in the opening series vs. the Penguins.

The Garden was flashing red, white and blue lights for pregame ceremonies, and Brassard kept the arena rocking by ripping home the game-opening goal just 28 seconds into the first period.

The French-Canadian center pounced on a Nash rebound kicked into the slot by Fleury after a Dan Girardi stretch pass up the left wing to Nash. Brassard came just one second away from tying the Rangers franchise record for the fastest goal to start a playoff game, accomplished by Ed “Boxcar” Hospodar in Game 2 of the preliminary round on April 9, 1981.

McDonagh scored on the third of four Rangers first-period power plays at 15:16 for a 2-0 lead they carried into intermission. He slapped a shot home from the point off assists from an active Keith Yandle and Zuccarello.

The Blueshirts outshot Pittsburgh, 13-5, in the first 20 minutes, but Lundqvist was forced to make huge stops on the few opportunities he faced.

Up 1-0, he stopped Evgeni Malkin down the left wing and stretched across the crease to stop two rebounds with his left arm and glove. Marc Staal blocked the puck with his skate, as well, as bodies piled into the crease, and Nash made the final save, kicking the puck out of harm’s way.

Lundqvist also made a huge left pad stop on a Penguins two-on-one rush on Steve Downie after Brandon Sutter fed the puck across. Fleury, meanwhile, denied Hagelin midway through the period after a Malkin turnover that Girardi punched ahead.

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