The Rangers beat the Devils 3-0 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night, and this all seems rather familiar. Indeed, with the third round of these playoffs now underway, it feels as though the Rangers have trained us all to expect a counterpunch from the opponent in Game 2. As terrific as the Rangers played in the third period of last night’s game, we’ve seen before how opponents have bounced back against this team and how a relatively comfortable victory in Game 1 has been merely the first strike in a tightly contested series. But is there any reason to believe these Eastern Conference Finals won’t play out in much the same way?
Not yet, probably. The Rangers played one of their best periods in the third, but the Devils had reason to be pleased with their game through the first 40 minutes. Like most victories this time of year, it was imperfect: New Jersey’s forecheck was effective in the first two periods, and Rangers mistakes led to Devils chances, at times requiring some extra effort from either Henrik Lundqvist or one of his teammates. (Dan Girardi owes Ryan McDonagh a beer after this one.) And while the much-discussed Rangers power play scored a huge goal last night, we were treated to the full power play experience last night: There was a point in the game when the Rangers’ penalty kill appeared as capable of generating scoring chances as their power play. That’s something to keep an eye on in this series, in fact: The Devils scored the most shorthanded goals in the league this year, but they also allowed the most.
(Something else we didn’t note last night: It looked like Michael Del Zotto might have closed his hand on the puck behind Henrik Lundqvist shortly before Chris Kreider’s goal. The Rangers controlled play in the third period, but one wonders how different this game might have looked if Del Zotto was whistled for a penalty there, the Rangers didn’t score their second goal, and the Devils went on the power play.)
All of this is to say: Last night was a great win, but we’ve seen how these series can turn. (The Devils, we’ll note, fell behind 1-0 in their series with Philly before winning the next four. They also fell behind on two separate occasions against Florida before winning that series in seven.) Henrik Lundqvist was on the top of his game last night, and that might be the biggest concern of all for Peter DeBoer’s team. But he and the vaunted Rangers defense aren’t invincible, especially against a team as capable as the Devils. The Rangers, once again, have a bit of a safety net after one game, but they haven’t played their best hockey in these situations so far. Indeed, playing with a sense of urgency when the opponent is actually in the more desperate position has been a problem for these Rangers. So far, this series feels quite a bit like the first two. The question now is whether the Rangers can break this particular trend in Game 2.