The scoreboard was more than a little deceiving.
Sure, the New York Rangers won Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final 3-0, but Monday night’s opener against the New Jersey Devils was also as close a game as they’d played in a postseason full of them.
The first period was tentative but even. The second was all New Jersey, with a two-man forecheck that dominated the Philadelphia Flyers simply confusing a Rangers team that didn’t see hardly any offensive zone pressure in Round 2 against the Washington Capitals.
The third was the difference -- albeit narrowly, and with an unlikely hero in Dan Girardi getting the winner just 53 seconds in.
All the while, Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist was perfect, allowing his team to regroup in time to win it in with three unanswered goals in the third.
“It’s a totally different game with the pressure they bring compared to what Washington did,” Rangers centre Brad Richards said. “So we had to get a handle on that and get a feel for that and we just stayed with it.”
“We’ve done it all year,” added teammate Ryan McDonagh, who contributed to the shutout with two key defensive plays on near-breakaways that could have dramatically altered things early on. “Just stayed with our structure and our game.”
As has been well documented in these playoffs, that game has relied heavily on two things: (a) Lundqvist stopping 94 per cent of the pucks that reach him and (b) his teammates blocking so many attempts that not all that many do.
The blocks alone (26 in Game 1) kept the shot clock in their favour by the end of the game (27-21), which was essentially won on Girardi’s blast from the point finding the back of the net to open the third period.
“They make it tough,” Devils centre Patrik Elias said. “You’re not going to get 30, 40 shots against this team.
“We need to score, obviously, to win a hockey game.”
Easier said that done on Monday, and likely in this series. The three goals (which included a late insurance marker from rookie Chris Kreider and a meaningless empty netter) dropped the NHL’s postseason average to just 4.93 goals per game, making these playoffs some of the lowest scoring in the modern era.
If anything, things will get even tighter over the final 15-odd remaining games, as officials always put the whistle away more as the Cup gets closer to being handed out.
In a game low on goals, Girardi was a fitting hero, as after his team was badly outplayed in that middle frame but hung in due to Lundqvist and blocked shots, he took charge in belting in the first goal through a maze of bodies.
That probably sets the template well for what we’ll likely see the rest of the way in this series, too, as this particular matchup has the makings of one of the lowest scoring series since the 2004-05 lockout took aim at reanimating the game out of its Dead Puck Era.
(Seven years later, much of that work has been undone by clever coaches, diligent checkers, and bigger and better goalies than ever before.)
Not that the atmosphere was lacking any in the building. In the first, the Madison Square Garden faithful were out in full throaty roars just two days after a Game 7 win over the Capitals had pushed them through.
They were egged on first by former Rangers Ron Duguay and Stephane Matteau -- the hero of New York’s win in the first go-round of this matchup in the 1994 conference finals -- on the jumbotron and then of their own volition, with MSG’s infamous chants all there.
Devils netminder Martin Brodeur was one easy target, with those now 18-year-old “Mar-ty” calls resonating ever so often, but Ilya Kovalchuk heard the jeers, too, as the crowd continued to heckle players at corresponding digits on the clock as a holdover from their first round series with the Ottawa Senators.
The momentum had appeared to be somewhat in New York’s favour in that first frame, with Lundqvist making a nifty glove save on rookie Adam Henrique and big Brian Boyle narrowly missing on a shorthanded 2-on-1 break in one of the few dangerous chances early on.
Then came the Devils dominance down low in the second and the Rangers lack of particularly adept puckmovers on the back end suddenly looked very much like a potential deciding factor in the series.
But they iced the puck. They blocked as many shots as they could -- which was more than they managed on Brodeur most of the night.
And somehow -- thanks mainly to Lundqvist calmly snuffing out chances away in the crease -- the puck stayed out.
Hanging in there eventually paid off.
“I thought Hank gave us a chance to stay there in the second,” coach John Tortorella said matter-of-factly. “Hank was really good in the second period.”
Being beaten by a hot goalie wasn’t a good enough narrative for the Devils, however, as at this stage of the proceedings, they’re all hot.
They’re all beatable, too, even if it didn’t quite look that way in Game 1.
“You want more traffic,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “You want more shots. We’ve got to find a way to stick them in the back of the net. We know we can do that. We’ve done it before. We watched Washington score on them. We watched Ottawa score on the them. We’ve just gotta find a way.”