Henrik Lundqvist, known affectionately as ‘The King’ in New York, is the odds on favorite to win the first Vezina trophy of his career for his work in the net this season. If not for a Vezina-like performance in game one of the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals, the Rangers may have found themselves in a 1-0 hole in the series.
The first half of last nights game saw the momentum lie with Ottawa, but the Rangers were able to stick with their game plan as they’ve done all season long, and pull ahead to a 4-0 lead before two late goals by the Senators led to a 4-2 Rangers victory.
The Rangers had not played a game one on home ice since 1996, and the Madison Square Garden crowd was rocking with a special energy seemingly reserved for the playoffs. The energy translated to the ice as the Rangers came out hard and took the body on the forecheck. After those first few shifts though, momentum swung and the Blueshirts spent much of the first in their own defensive zone defending against a Senators team that scored more goals in the regular season than all but three teams – Pittsburgh, Boston, and Philadelphia.
The shots were not necessarily so many in quantity or quality, but if not for the steady play of the Rangers net minder and the sound defensive positioning as a five man unit, the Senators could have gone ahead early.
While much is made of the play of Henrik Lundqvist, and rightfully so, the value of Ryan Callahan to this team cannot go unmentioned. After fracturing a bone in his leg in the final week of the regular season a year ago, Callahan missed the series against Washington, and could only watch as his team bowed out in five games. “Not being able to be with the team during the playoffs after battling with them,” Callahan said. “It’s good to get that first win under my belt.” Last night, Callahan again proved why he wears the C on his chest. With momentum against the Rangers, Callahan battled his way to the front, beat Filip Kuba, and banged home a rebound just past Craig Anderson.
Momentum still did not shift the way the Rangers would have liked it, and after several icings around the midpoint of the game, Tortorella used his timeout with his team leading 1-0. “We had stopped making plays. It calmed us down to make plays,” Marc Staal said. This was not the first, and probably will not be the last time Tortorella has used his timeout with a lead, and boy did it pay off last night.
From 10:09 left in the second, through 10:05 remaining in the third, the Rangers settled down and gained the momentum by making crisper passes, and having cleaner breakouts that led to a few odd man rushes.
With momentum favoring the Rangers, the stars shined on Broadway as Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards scored goals sandwiched around another by Brian Boyle, bringing the lead to four.
When Glen Sather signed Gaborik in 2009 and Richards last July, it was for nights, and plays, like last night: big goals when needed in the playoffs.
Another reason for their success is the Rangers sixth ranked penalty kill and its ability to stifle the Senators 11th ranked power play with high scoring defenseman Erik Karlsson quarterbacking alongside offensive threats Sergei Gonchar, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, among others. It was the quick pressure to the puck carrier and sticks in passing lanes that has been the hallmark of the PK throughout the regular season.
The Rangers won because they played the way they have all season long, and as Tortorella put it, got “big play’s at key times.”
Unfortunately for Lundqvist, he could not hold on for the shutout, as the same shortcomings that plagued the Rangers early on crept back into their game, leading to a Daniel Alfredsson deflection goal in front off the rush, and a perfectly executed two-on-one between Nick Foligno and eventual goal scorer Erik Condra after Staal extended too far towards the blue line trying to defend Kyle Turris.
The Rangers won game one because they played the way they did all season long; they stuck to their game when Ottawa had control, and Lundqvist kept his team in the game long enough for the Rangers’ big guns to get it going. Throw in some aggressive penalty killing and blocked shots, and the recipe for success prevailed again. “We didn’t lose ourselves,” said Tortorella. “They pinched hard, had us bottled up, but we found our game, the way we play.”
Long story short, the Rangers’ 4-0 lead never quite told an accurate story of how the game was played in terms of momentum, and the 4-2 final doesn’t quite tell how well Lundqvist played when the Rangers, and New York, needed him most. “We have to build on it,” said Gaborik, and he’s right. Complacency in spring time in the NHL leads to disaster, and Tortorella, no matter the highs or lows, has ever allowed a team of his to be self-satisfied.
If the Rangers don’t fix the flaws they displayed last night, a series that many experts predict to be a short one in favor of the Blueshirts, we could all be in for a longer series than most expect.