NEW YORK – The pre-game light show had barely ended, the crowd still roaring from excitement as these much-anticipated playoffs began.
They were back on their feet, delirious with excitement, in seconds.
More specifically, it took just 28 seconds for the Rangers to take control of Game 1 of their Metropolitan Division semifinal against the Penguins. Rick Nash sent a low shot from the point towards Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and he popped a juicy rebound right out in front, where Derick Brassard was crashing the net.
Just like that, a different kind of light – the red light – went on, and 18,006 towels were waving furiously, their owners screaming in delight.
“I give a lot of credit to Rick,” Brassard said after scoring his ninth-career playoff goal. “He didn’t shoot to score, there. He shot for a rebound, he did it on purpose. It was just right there for the rebound.”
The goal was the second-fastest the Rangers have scored at the start of a playoff game in franchise history. Ed Hospodar scored 27 seconds into Game 2 of the team’s opening-round game in 1981.
The tally helped to settle nerves as the playoffs began – an emotion that’s only human as this two-month dogfight to the mountaintop begins.
“You gotta be nervous a little bit,” said Martin St. Louis, who played in his 89th career playoff game. “I’m 39 years old, but I still get nervous before that first playoff game. To get that first goal, it’s a lift for the team and it’s a chance for us to really grab the momentum early.”
“The wait, getting ready for the playoffs is a couple days of anxiousness,” said defenseman Keith Yandle, who played his first postseason game with the Rangers after a midseason trade from Arizona. “To get the first one really helps.”
In fact, it wasn’t just the opening 28 seconds that were good, it was the entire first period. The Rangers outshot the Penguins 13-5 in the opening 20 minutes and scored twice. Ryan McDonagh added a power-play goal at 15:16, sending a shot through a screen and past Marc-Andre Fleury (36 saves).
They also drew four first-period power plays against an undisciplined Penguins team that seemed more interested in bruising the Rangers than beating them.
“Yeah, we were good in the first period,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “We had the puck a lot, made some great plays, we were drawing a lot of penalties. It was definitely a good start to the hockey game.”
“You’re anxious before you start,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (24 saves). “We aren’t really sure what to expect. When we go out and play our first period like that I think it helps everyone to kind of find their game and get going. It’s just great to see. It gets the building going and gets our confidence right away in this game.”
“It was a combination of the first shot [for the Rangers] going in, and giving them some momentum on their ice. The momentum, the crowd, the surge, and those penalties – they earned it,” said Penguins coach Mike Johnston. “I think the initial shift was tentative, but then you give back when the crowd starts to surge like that.”
The Penguins were better in the second and third periods, but by then New York had all the offense it needed, and its famously-focused goaltender wasn’t about to allow Pittsburgh back into the game.
“We knew after the first period they were going to push back a little bit,” Lundqvist said. “I thought we controlled the game really well for the first 20 to 30 minutes and then they started coming a little bit more. We played a really smart game. It was a good start.”
“We played a solid game,” Brassard said. “It was a really good effort, but now we have to put it behind us. We’re going to enjoy it tonight, and tomorrow is another day.”
The Rangers have won 17 of their last 26 home playoff games, dating back to Game 7 of the 2012 first round. They’ve earned at least one win at Madison Square Garden in 16 consecutive playoff series, a streak that began in 2007.
The Rangers are 22-6 in franchise history when they win Game 1 of a playoff series at home.