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Keith Yandle showing Rangers he could make difference

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Keith Yandle picks up an assist on a power-play goal, exactly what the Rangers brought him in to do.Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Keith Yandle picks up an assist on a power-play goal, exactly what the Rangers brought him in to do.

Keith Yandle said his first Garden playoff game was “amazing” and “even more than I expected.” He wasn’t that bad himself.

The defenseman, acquired from Phoenix on March 2, played a key role in the Rangers’ 2-1 win over Pittsburgh in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series Thursday night, helping the Blueshirts do something they found nearly impossible to accomplish last spring: score a power-play goal.

In case you forgot, the Rangers were a meager 13-for-103 (13%) with the man advantage last spring, including an embarrassing 3-for-47 clip at the Garden. They went 0-for-their-first-15 against the Pens in the second round of the playoffs last year, falling into a 3-1 hole they needed a miracle to climb out of.

But perhaps this year will be different. Yandle, who cost GM Glen Sather defenseman John Moore and top forward prospect Anthony Duclair in the trade-deadline deal with Phoenix, played a key part in what turned out to be the winning goal.

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One minute and seven seconds after Blake Comeau went to the box for roughing Dominic Moore, Yandle slid a perfect pass to defense partner Ryan McDonagh, who one-timed a shot from the left point through Penguins goalie Marc Andre Fleury for a 2-0 lead.

“We separated ourselves with a power-play goal, which is key,” said Rangers forward Martin St. Louis, whose team went 1-for-5 with the man advantage. “I wish we could have maybe separated ourselves a little bit more. We got a lot of power plays in the first, but this is a good penalty-killing team, and it’s tough to score goals in this league.”

The Rangers got four power plays in the first 20 minutes in fact (and one in the third period), with the Penguins clearly trying to agitate the heavily favored hosts.

Despite strong puck movement by Yandle and McDonagh, the Rangers managed just five shots on goal in 6:43 of first period power-play time and just the one goal.

“(Pittsburgh) is a good penalty-killing team, they block a lot of shots,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “The power play got some good looks, got us a big goal and it turned out to be the game winner.”

Yandle, who logged 20:38 of ice time (6:21 on the power play), also showed one of his underrated qualities: the ability to mix it up and stand up for a teammate. Early in the game, he got in the face of Maxim Lapierre, who was roughing up Kevin Hayes, and later took out Daniel Winnick in the middle of the ice on a Penguins rush. It was a chippy Pens squad all night, and he was ready for it.

“I got a sense for it watching last (Wednesday) night, teams going hard,” said Yandle, a nine-year veteran. “Being a little chippy, you embrace it and be ready for it.”

Yandle and the other five Rangers defensemen had to step up in the final 9:32 when Dan Girardi left the game after getting hit in the face with a deflected puck. It left the Rangers shorthanded on the blue line trying to protect their one-goal lead.

“Anytime you miss G for a few shifts, when anyone goes out, everyone has to step up, and do their part,” said Yandle. “And everyone did that. Hopefully everything’s OK with him.”

It was for Yandle, who seemed to thrive on the energy of the Garden crowd.

“I’ve been talking about it, and getting ready for it,” said Yandle. “The fans were amazing; it was a lot of fun.” 

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