You could take Saturday’s Rangers game and insert it into any of the last 15 Rangers seasons and it would fit seamlessly. A Rangers postseason game in which the team is thoroughly dominated, needs Henrik Lundqvist to stand on his head to have a chance and attemps a comeback a little too late? It was a game straight out of the Rangers’ post-lockout era, and unfortunately, it came against a team they have grown accustomed to beating, and a team they should beat.
In the first minute of Game 1 of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup qualifying series against the Hurricanes, Jesper Fast took a big hit from former teammate Brady Skjei. It was a big enough hit that Fast, arguably the Rangers’ best defensive player, was lost on the ice for the remainder of his shift. Most likely concussed from the hit, Fast stayed on the ice long enough to find his way back into the defensive zone where he stayed flat-footed because of his head injury and never thought to watch for or pick up Jacob Slavin joining the forecheck by creating a backdoor lane to the net. A cross-zone pass to Slavin and a perfect shot over Lundqvist’s right shoulder gave the Hurricanes a 1-0 just 61 seconds into the game. Fast never returned.
The game was officiated like a September preseason game in which the league is trying to display how infractions will be called for the upcoming season. And while there hasn’t been hockey in nearly four months and we are much closer to the start of a new season than we normally are to a postseason, calling 16 minor penalities in a playoff game is simply absurd. The entire first two periods were played with special teams and the more penalties the Rangers took, the more Artemi Panarin sat on the bench. And the more he sat on the bench, the more ice time Brett Howden and Greg McKegg received.
Like the regular season, it wasn’t until the Rangers’ chance of winning was approaching impossible that David Quinn began to make line decisions with urgency. It wasn’t until the Rangers trailed by two goals with about two minutes to go in the game that he finally gave in to putting Panarin and Mika Zibanejad on the ice together to kill a penalty and try to create offense. The desperation move from Quinn paid off as the two were able to control the puck in the Hurricanes’ zone and both assist on the Rangers’ second goal from the unlikely stick of Marc Staal.
The Rangers played the way they played for the first half of the regular season, abandoning the style of play that led to them going on the type of run needed to now be part of the 24-team tournament. Their play was chaotic in the first period as they let the Hurricanes dominate possession, and if not for Lundqvist, the game would have been over before the first intermission. Unfortunately, I can see Quinn going to Igor Shesterkin in Game 2 on Sunday, even though Lundqvist earned the right to play and deserves to play the next game after his performance in Game 1. But like the faction of fans who probably think the three goals against were Lundqvist’s fault and he’s the reason the team is already down in the best-of-5 series, Quinn will say the team needs a spark and he’ll go to Shesterkin. It’s illogical and unfair, but it’s the way Quinn makes decisions. The same way he thinks Howden or McKegg are better options than Panarin or Zibanejad at any point in a hockey game.
After going 4-0 against the Hurricanes this season, the Hurricanes finally solved the Rangers. Or at least they finally held on against the Rangers. Game 1 was nearly identical to most of the Rangers-Hurricanes games this season with the Rangers getting thoroughly outplayes. The only difference was the final score. In the regular season, the Rangers were always able to get even better goaltending than they did on Saturday and they were always able to find the net when they needed to. Without Lundqvist somehow playing better than he did, which might not have been humanly possible, and without puck luck, the Rangers experienced the fate they were able to avoid against Carolina earlier this year.
The Rangers need to win Game 2. They don’t have to win Game 2, though if they don’t, their season will be on the brink of elimation. The five-month wait for Rangers hockey can’t only last a few days, but if the Rangers continue to play like they did on Saturday, it will.