After winning the President's Trophy with a couple of games remaining, many were already pencilling in the Rangers as the favorite to win the Cup. Bookmakers, pundits, and fans all favor the Rangers to take home their first Stanley Cup title in twenty one years.
A trip to the finals last year give the Blueshirts credibility, which was backed up by a regular season title won on the back of the Rangers' depth and ability to overcome key injuries to Henrik Lundqvist, Kevin Klein, Brian Boyle, Martin St. Louis and Ryan McDonagh.
By contrast the Pittsburgh Penguins limped into the playoffs, needing a win against the lowly Buffalo Sabres on the final day of the season to capture the last Wild Card spot in the East.
Many expected a one-sided affair in Game 1, and the home team delivered early, with a goal to Derick Brassard just 28 seconds in, and a second tally off of the stick of Ryan McDonagh, as the Blueshirts capitalized on a string of penalties to their scrambling Penguins.
Going into the second period, and it looked as if a rout was well and truly on the cards. The Rangers perhaps relaxed a little, the Penguins adjusted, and ultimately scored a goal off the stick of Blake Comeau, to pull it back to a one goal game.
It was a far more even period, although the Rangers did keep outchancing their opponents, and in the third period, they continued to have the better opportunities to score. A calm performance by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury covered up for the lack of experience on the decimated blueline, but without strong puck-movers on the back end, the Penguins failed to generate much sustained offense, allowing the Rangers to constantly turn the puck back the other way.
It's true that a lucky bounce could easily have put the game into a different context, but even while the Rangers held onto their one goal lead, they seldom looked at risk of giving it up. Five days off, the emotion of starting as favorites in front of their home town crowd, perhaps affecting the team, but ultimately they took control of their emoitons and cloed out the game.
Even with one of their top defenders missing in the last five minutes of the game, the Blueshirts controlled the temp. Pittsburgh had difficulty generating much in the way of chances, as New York played the percentages and made sure they put the puck into safe areas of the ice, and covered off their men.
Several Penguins fans lamented this game as a lost opportunity to surprise the Rangers, and steal a critical game that would give them a chance to compete in the series. By contrast, the Blueshirts can look at it as the first of the four wins they need to close out the first round, while also confirming that they can play a tight game on their terms.
Looking ahead to Game 2 - Saturday 8pm - and both teams will be looking to make adjustments. The Rangers will want to continue to work on their power play. They did score, and looked good on another two of their man advantages, but the opportunity to take the game away was missed. Offensively they generated plenty of quality chances, but they'll look for ways to put Fleury in two minds more often, and perhaps make quicker decisions with the puck in the offensive end.
Pittsburgh will look to take their penalty count down, and Steve Downie might find himself in the press box if team depth allows such a luxury. Spending almost half of the first period a man down cost the Penguins the ability to find their game, and allowed the Rangers to dictate the play.
Over his career, Marc-Andre Fleury has developed a reputation for inconsistent performances across a series. He looked very comfortable after giving up the first goal, and will look to build on that. Henrik Lundqvist, looked less comfortable to some extent, being more prone to give up rebounds and perhaps overplaying the puck at times. He had to deal with a lot more traffic in and around the crease than Fleury did, which is another thing the Rangers will want to look at.
On the back end, it looks like Dan Girardi will be able to play Game 2, while Kevin Klein looks set to miss yet another game. Keith Yandle and Matt Hunwick performed well in their first post season game as a Ranger, while Dan Boyle will look to replicate his third period performance moreso than the first two periods.
Up front it was good to see J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes using their strength to dictate the play. Rick Nash too made several solid plays, including on defense to help generate offense or recover. In fact, it'd be hard to fault any of the Ranger forwards in Game 1, and more of the same will be what Vigneault will be looking for.
In the end 2-1 may look like a close game, but the reality was the Rangers controlled the game for large portions, and it would have been an unfair result if they had not won. More scoring would have reflected more accurately the play, but it was not to be.
The Rangers passed their first test, and have at least fifteen more to pass before they can successfully conclude their quest. Win #1 of 16 is in the books.
RANGERS BABY RANGERS!