Rangers drop Game One to relentless Hurricanes 3-2

From the start, the Rangers were flat. They looked lethargic in the early going of this best of five preliminary series. The poor start along with a bad break cost them in a 3-2 loss to a stronger Hurricanes team in Game One of this expanded format.

It’s a bit different. With it being a five game series, the Rangers know they must respond quickly on Monday. There is no home ice advantage here in the bubble. The first game of the unique Stanley Cup Tournament was played at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto without fans. So, there wasn’t much noise aside from all the physicality we saw. There was plenty of hitting throughout.

With rookie Igor Shesterkin ruled out due to being “unfit to play,” Henrik Lundqvist made his franchise record 128th consecutive postseason start. Even though it started inauspicious for the 38-year old veteran, it sure wasn’t his fault. He played as well as can be expected, finishing with 34 saves including a pair of dandies to deny Warren Foegle and Jake Gardiner.

To be blunt, it wouldn’t have even been a game without Lundqvist doing his best work in a lopsided first period to keep his team in it. After allowing an early goal to top Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin short side off a great pass from Teuvo Teravainen 61 seconds in, Lundqvist settled in. Aside from a strong power move and dangerous Vincent Trocheck backhand that had him beat but went off the crossbar, he was splendid in making the next 11 saves in a period the Hurricanes outshot the Rangers 12-4.

Following Teravainen and Sebastian Aho (goal and assist) setting up Slavin’s first, the march to the penalty box began. Each team had seven power plays. It was on Carolina’s first man-advantage that Ryan Strome got into a fight with Justin Williams. It was obvious that he was trying to awaken his teammates. They looked like they were skating in quicksand.

Credit the Canes for being very aggressive. They finished every check and took away time and space while controlling puck possession. Ironically enough, it was Brady Skjei who got the best hit in when he lined up Jesper Fast at the Carolina blueline and caught him with a clean shoulder to send his former teammate to the locker room. Fast never returned.

That loss hurt. If he doesn’t return for Monday’s all important Game Two, it’ll be up to coach David Quinn to decide who should dress. The choices are Steven Fogarty, Tim Gettinger, Vitali Kravtsov, or Danny O’Regan. Vinni Lettieri was also listed as a scratch, but I’m not sure what his status is.

Forced to mix and match, Quinn tried different combinations. In the near disastrous first, he saw a couple of bright spots in Julien Gauthier and Kaapo Kakko. Both young forwards didn’t look intimidated despite all the hitting. Gauthier got off a couple of shots and Kakko wound up leading the team with five. He looked much improved and saw some shifts with Mika Zibanejad. Maybe this is the moment to see what the 19-year old second overall pick is all about. He should be in the top six without Fast.

Despite the Canes swarming Lundqvist’s net, they only took a one goal lead to the locker room. There had already been nine penalties called. That included a undisciplined Andrei Svechnikov hook that Kakko drew with six seconds left in the period.

However, one of the league’s best penalty kills frustrated the Rangers, who looked out of sorts. They were unable to get much set up time in the Carolina zone. The Canes were aggressive and forced turnovers for easy clears. We didn’t see Artemi Panarin get one clean look. Zibanejad didn’t find much space either. Tony DeAngelo got off a good low shot that Petr Mrazek handled. Adam Fox made a back pass to nobody out of the zone. Chris Kreider didn’t get anything done. Period. They must be better in the second game.

The fact that the Rangers went 0-for-7 on the power play was frustrating. They lost the battle of special teams with the Canes able to convert on one chance thanks to an Aho deflection in front off a set face-off play. With Brett Howden off for slashing Gardiner, it didn’t take long. Carolina connected 15 seconds in thanks to a Svechnikov shot pass being tipped in by Aho for his first past Lundqvist.

Sami Vatanen drew the secondary helper. Making his debut for Carolina following a trade from the Devils along with a injury, he was good throughout. Paired alongside Slavin in place of Dougie Hamilton, Vatanen recorded an assist with four shots and took two minor penalties in 20:35.

Even though they trailed by two, the Blueshirts picked up their play in the second. Generating momentum off a better power play in which Mrazek made some good stops, they started to turn the tide. A Panarin shot pass for an open Zibanejad at the doorstep just missed. If he gets it clean, he scores.

Speaking of Zibanejad, he was named the Rangers’ Extra Effort Award Winner for a second consecutive year. It was well deserved. John Giannone did a taped interview with him and he spoke about how honored he was to win the Steven McDonald Award. Mika has led by example on and off the ice all season. It’s no wonder he bounced back with a good final two periods. True to his character.

In a game that felt like one extended power play, it was Zibanejad striking at even strength for the Rangers’ first goal. On some sustained pressure from Pavel Buchnevich, Kreider kept the puck alive for Ryan Lindgren. Following a shaky first in which he showed nerves in his first postseason game, he did the right thing and got a low shot through that Zibanejad could redirect with Buchnevich screening Mrazek for a big goal. That made it 2-1 with 5:34 left in the second.

Simply put, it was the first consistent shift from the KZB line at five-on-five. A rarity in this game. Each team recorded 21 penalty minutes for a game total of 42. Following the Zibanejad tally, Kreider took a needless hi-sticking minor on Vatanen nine seconds later. That was the kinda game it was. Most of the calls were legit. It had a lot to do with the players not being game ready. So, you had a lot of unnecessary stick fouls. There were only a couple of ticky tac calls.

Lundqvist made some key saves on the Canes power play to keep the Rangers within one. He was sharp throughout and showed some of his brilliance versus an opponent he’s historically owned. If Shesterkin can’t go in two days, I have no problem with Lundqvist starting Game Two. This was as good as he’s looked all season. Maybe the extra time off helped. He looks fresh.

A Strome hook on Williams handed the Canes a late power play with 73 seconds remaining in the period. It was one of those mindless Strome penalties he can’t take. With no Fast available and Strome in the box, Quinn used Filip Chytil for a penalty killing shift. It worked out okay.

The only gripe I have is why didn’t Quinn consider using Panarin shorthanded. He wasn’t a factor due to little five-on-five. They needed offense. After the first period, Howden fed all Ranger forwards in ice-time. That made no sense. Panarin still would up with 20:59 including 7:46 on the power play. But Howden received over 17 minutes including 5:50 shorthanded. He also saw extra shifts at even strength with Fast out.

By comparison, Zibanejad logged a game high 25:32 because he plays in every situation including power play (8:35) and penalty kill (6:21). He also took 21 draws winning nine. Strome was good going 6-for-11 while Howden dominated by winning 6 of 8. Chytil struggled losing 8 of 11. On the Carolina side, Jordan Staal went 10-for-18, Trocheck 8-for-12 and Aho 10 of 21. Overall, the Canes won the face-off battle 31-26.

Predictably, the teams finally adjusted in the third which was played mostly at five-on-five. That’s where I believe it must be played in order for the Rangers to win. They were coming on. With the exception of minors on Greg McKegg (boarding) and DeAngelo (interference), it was played at even strength.

Even though the Hurricanes got 14 shots on Lundqvist, he was equal to the task. Following McKegg’s penalty expiring, he came out of the box and back in the play. Unfortunately, a Nino Niederreiter pass for a Martin Necas low one-timer took a unfavorable bounce off Marc Staal’s skate right past an exasperated Lundqvist. He was set for Necas shot with the glove ready, but instead it changed direction and went right through for a crushing goal that allowed Carolina to take a 3-1 lead with 9:09 left in the third.

It sure looked like it was over following the DeAngelo minor. However, Quinn finally wised up and sent Panarin out with Zibanejad for a penalty kill shift. Searching for offense, he found it from an unlikely source. After some good stick handling from Panarin, he got the puck to Zibanejad, who passed for an open Staal one-timer that beat Mrazek with 1:55 left in regulation. It was a good shot that deflected off a Hurricane for a rare Staal shorthanded goal. He deserved a break following what happened.

The Rangers were able to pull Lundqvist for an extra skater. But the stingy Canes wouldn’t allow them to tie it. They earned the first win of the series by being better overall. More complete. Now, it’s up to the Rangers to respond.

Battle of Hudson Three Stars

3rd 🌟 Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes (1st of postseason 61 seconds in plus 🍎 in team high 24:40 including 7:28 shorthanded)

2nd 🌟 Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes (power play goal plus 🍎 in 21:33)

1st 🌟 Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers (34 saves including some gems in team record 128th straight postseason start)

Notes: Rangers wound up with 40 hits including nine from Howden and six from Kreider. The Canes recorded 28 with no one with more than three. … Blocked shots were 15-9 NYR. … Carolina outshot the Rangers 37-29 and out-attempted them 69-49. … Game Two is Monday at noon.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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