By outworking the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday night, the New York Rangers had done something that not many other teams have done over the past three years.
In fact, the Rangers practically ran the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions out of Madison Square Garden in a 6-2 victory — providing an immediate indicator that this won’t be like Tampa’s second-round cakewalk of a sweep over the President’s Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.
Over the Lightning’s previous five games dating back to Game 7 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had given up just four goals, turning away 181 of 185 shots that came his way.
Through 36 minutes in Game 1 against the Rangers, he was beaten four times.
“You have to give them credit,” Tampa captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s a really good hockey team over there… We certainly didn’t have our best.”
Six Rangers in total had multi-point games while Vasilevskiy’s opposite in Igor Shesterkin was brilliant once again, turning away 37 of 39 shots to take the first round of one of the best goaltending matchups you’ll see.
“There were things tonight that we hadn’t done a ton of in the last two rounds,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. “The Rangers have such dynamic players where if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. They did that. Give credit to them, they’re a good team…
“They didn’t fluke their way to where they are in this playoffs.”
A sign of respect from the opposing coach of a team that had plenty of question marks surrounding them entering the Eastern Conference Final. After all, they played the second and third-string goalies of both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes through large portions of the first two rounds.
“They finished,” Cooper said of New York’s attack. “Every time they had a chance, they finished. Good on them. You’re supposed to do that.
“In saying that, we have better in us as well.”
This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the Lightning, who have won 10 consecutive playoff series on their way to back-to-back Cups. They lost the first game in four of those series, including last year’s Stanley Cup semifinal against the Islanders and most recently, Game 1 of the first round against the Maple Leafs.
“In the end, it’s Game 1, we’ve been through this before,” Cooper said. “We’ve won series in which we lost the first game, we’ve won series in which we won the first game. Now that we got a look at them and they got a look at us, we know we have better in us.”