Many have predicted that the Rangers will take their first round series against the Penguins with ease. If game one on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden taught us anything, though, it’s that despite the Rangers taking the opening contest of the series as they were expected to, the Penguins are not going to go down easy.
Here are three takeaways from game one between the Rangers and the Penguins.
The Flower Appears to be Alive and Well
For all the flack that Pittsburgh netminder Marc Andre-Fleury has received in recent years due to his less-than stellar play in the playoffs, he was quite solid between the pipes on in game one in New York. After a shaky start in which he allowed a juicy rebound which led to Derick Brassard putting the Rangers on the board just 28 seconds into Thursday’s game, Fleury settled in nicely to give the Penguins a fighting chance. Stopping 25 of 27 shots over the first two periods, Fleury helped his Pittsburgh team weather the storm to give them a realistic shot to tie the game, one which the Rangers easily could’ve run away with early.
Instead, the Penguins hung around, and made the Rangers sweat toward the end of regulation. The native of Quebec finished the night with 36 saves on 38 shots. He may not have stolen the game for the Penguins, but he certainly didn’t lose it for them either. If Fleury plays the way he did on Thursday for the remainder of the series, this one could go longer than many are predicting.
Rangers Must Find Killer Instinct
A playoff win is a playoff win. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly, pretty, gritty, or glitzy. A win is one step closer to Lord Stanley’s Cup and ultimately that’s all that matters. For the Rangers, Thursday’s 2-1 victory certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was a win nonetheless. However, if the Rangers are going to make this series a short one, they’re going to need to expose Pittsburgh’s bottom three defensemen for the inexperienced bunch that they are, and find the killer instinct to not just get the Penguins down early, but finish them off before they ever have a chance to see what happened to them.
There’s no question that scoring twice in the first period was exactly what the Rangers wanted to do. It stunned Pittsburgh and it took them a while to recover, but once they did, the ice started to tilt back the other way in favor of the Penguins. Despite numerous opportunities and four squandered power plays in five chances, the Rangers were unable to get that third goal to effectively put the Penguins away. Then, lo and behold, Blake Comeau lit the lamp late in the middle period to make the contest a tight one. While Pittsburgh may be a shell of the team they once were, they’re still a tough team that will hang around if you let them. The Rangers let them on Thursday, and they almost paid the price.
All of that said, there’s a lot of pressure and very high expectations on this year’s Rangers squad. To earn a win at home to start the playoffs off on the right foot was extremely important, and they hung on to do just that to take the 1-0 series lead.
The King and His Defenders
Even if Thursday’s win wasn’t the convincing one some may have hoped for or expected from the Rangers, the defense sans Klein and Girardi (for the later part of the third period) for the most part did its job. The Rangers held the Penguins to just 25 shots on goal, only four of which came from the trio of Malkin, Crosby, and Hornqvist. If the Blueshirts defense can duplicate that performance three more times, the end result will more than likely be a good one for New York.
There was a stretch of play during the second period where the Rangers did find themselves giving the puck away, and they eventually surrendered a goal when Dan Boyle was entangled and out-muscled in the net-mouth by Maxim Lapierre. Aside from that, however, the performance was pretty solid and when mistakes did occur, Henrik Lundqvist was in top-shape to bail his team out.
“It was definitely a good start to the hockey game,” Marc Staal told reporters following the game. “They [the Penguins] started getting a little closer to us in the second and third. They did a better job in the neutral zone and we weren’t getting as many breaks as we did in the first period. They kept it close, but we hung on.” – Marc Staal
For a team that’s built its reputation around strong, suffocating defense, the Rangers carried out their plan well. Could their all-around game have been better? It certainly could have. The game they played during the second period could have been tighter, thus not allowing the Penguins to stick around the way they did. But a win in the Stanley Cup playoffs is a win, and that’s all that matters.
The Rangers lead the best-of-7 series 1-0. We’ll see you at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday for Rangers-Penguins Game 2.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.