Eastern Conference Final: Rangers thunder past Lightning 6-2 to take Game One, Chytil scores twice in  dominant second period, Special Teams a difference, Shesterkin outplays Vasilevskiy

Shift Of The Game: The third line forecheck leads to Filip Chytil’s second goal of the second period to make it 4-2. On a great keep by Adam Fox. Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller combine to set up the game’s First Star Filip Chytil for his fifth goal over the last three games.

It’s not often you see a dominant performance in a Conference Final game. That’s what happened tonight at MSG in Game One of the Eastern Conference Final.

Playing for the first time in the third round since 2015 against the same opponent, the Rangers took the first game over the Lightning 6-2 before a raucous atmosphere at 33rd and 7th. They lead the series one game to none.

That they flat out dominated the two-time defending champion Lightning in Game One was unexpected. But that’s exactly what happened. They were far better than a Tampa Bay team that entered the game on a nine-day layoff.

The difference was a great second period. After holding off the Bolts to a 1-1 tie in a back and forth opening period, it was the Rangers who took control by outscoring the Lightning 3-1. They also had a 17-10 edge in shots, which along with a stronger forecheck helped build a two-goal lead.

Even better, it was Filip Chytil who had an outstanding game. He scored twice in the second half of the second and notched the game-winner to earn the game’s First Star. He now has five goals in the last three games including a pair in Game Six and one in the Game Seven victory over the Hurricanes.

It was remarkable. As highlighted above in the shift of the game, the young trio of Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko had a dominant shift on sustained pressure that led directly to his second goal that put the Rangers up 4-2 with 4:17 left in the second period.

The so-called Kid Line combined for five points (2-3-5) and finished with five shots, eight attempts with a combined plus-six rating. It was the splendid play of the third line that made a huge difference. Their ability to use their speed and get in on the forecheck proved to be the key to the win.

While the Lightning focused largely on the top two lines with even coach Jon Cooper changing the match-up following an early Chris Kreider goal 71 seconds in, they didn’t have an answer for the Chytil line. All three forwards were superb. They got plenty of love from The Garden crowd.

In a game they never trailed despite the Lightning coming back twice to tie it up, six different Rangers had two points. Eleven skaters registered a point.

Igor Shesterkin also outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first big meeting between the game’s best two goalies. He made 37 saves on 39 shots including some big ones early and a critical stop to deny Alex Killorn with the game still tied.

It was a tough night for Vasilevskiy, who entered play having stopped 151 of 154 shots in a sweep of the Panthers. Instead, he was rudely greeted by Kreider at 1:11 on a two-on-one feed from Mika Zibanejad. Of the six goals he allowed on 34 shots, the one the Conn Smythe winner gave up to Frank Vatrano less than eight minutes into the second period was one he’d want back.

Although the stat line was ugly for such a great goalie, he wasn’t to blame. His team played poorly in front of him. They made costly mistakes in coverage that led to plenty of openings for the Rangers to take advantage of.

Chytil’s game-winning goal came on a blown assignment from right in front. He also was again left wide open for his second of the game. Artemi Panarin also converted a two-on-one rush 30 seconds into the third to extend the lead to three. Zibanejad buried a one-timer from the left circle on a Panarin pass across for a power play goal that put the exclamation point on Game One.

It was that kind of night at the World’s Most Shameless Arena. Think dollar signs folks. It sure is an expensive ticket. The less said about that, the better. At least the fans who went got their monies worth.

At the beginning of the game on ESPN, you had the match-up I expected. Cooper started Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak with his second line against the Panarin line. Gerard Gallant had Miller and Jacob Trouba on for the opening shift.

After a couple of hits, out came the Zibanejad line. Initially, they went head to head with Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Nikita Kucherov. However, former Ranger Ryan McDonagh stepped up to hit Vatrano. While absorbing the hit, he chipped the puck up to lead Zibanejad and Kreider on a two-on-one.

After receiving the pass right on his tape, a patient Kreider set himself and fired a laser high blocker past an outstretched Vasilevskiy for the game’s first goal at 1:11. It was a perfect start. Kreider’s ninth of the postseason pulled him within one goal of the Rangers franchise record held by Rod Gilbert. He scored 34 goals in the playoffs.

As expected, Cooper went with the 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment. However, he made a quick adjustment. Following the Kreider goal, he switched the assignments. McDonagh and Bogosian were matched against Panarin, Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp. That left Hedman and Cernak against Zibanejad, Kreider and Vatrano.

That wasn’t all. Maybe sensing that his team was rusty due to over a week off, Cooper split up Kucherov from Stamkos. He flipped Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Palat moved onto the Stamkos line with Cirelli while Kucherov worked with Paul and Killorn.

The moves paid off. The Lightning responded well by getting five of the next six shots. On a dangerous shift by their new second line, Hedman had a shot go wide with traffic in front. Then Panarin took a tough hit from McDonagh. He didn’t get all of him as Panarin ducked to absorb the contact.

After a good save from Shesterkin on Hedman, the Lightning were able to get their top line out against the Rangers’ checking line. With Miller and the forwards unable to clear the puck, Cirelli got it over to Jan Rutta, who dished across for a wicked Stamkos one-timer that beat Shesterkin high blocker to tie the game at 7:12.

That was a great shift by the Bolts. They won the board battles and the loose pucks to set up Stamkos’ fifth of the postseason. He was one of their best players. He could’ve had more, but would miss on a point blank chance at a critical point later on.

If there was an area they struggled with, it was handling the Lightning forecheck pressure. They were able to force several turnovers that could’ve led to goals against. Fortunately, it didn’t.

Not long after the Stamkos goal, Kucherov had a two-on-one from in front. But his tip-in try was denied by Shesterkin to keep it tied. That was a close call.

The Rangers got a lift from the fourth line. After being on for a goal against, the trio of Barclay Goodrow, Tyler Motte and Ryan Reaves put together two consecutive shifts where they spent time in the Lightning end. During one shift, Motte had a backhand go wide.

On the next shift, an aggressive Vatrano got a good hit on Paul in the neutral zone. He was very active throughout. Not considered the most physical player, he finished with five hits to go with a goal and an assist. It was his most assertive game since the first round.

On a Chytil face-off win in the offensive zone, Fox tested Vasilevskiy with a quick wrist shot that he handled at the halfway mark of the period. At that point, the play was very even and wide open. A noticeable difference from the second round.

With the second lines going head to head on a shift, it was the Bolts who applied heavy pressure in the Rangers’ end. Some more spotty play from Trouba and Miller almost cost them. But a hustling Miller hustled back to get a piece of a Kucherov shot that probably was headed in.

He also would get open for a good scoring chance. While being double shifted by Cooper on the fourth line with Maroon and Bellemare, a strong cycle saw Kucherov get loose for a shot in front that Shesterkin coolly handled.

On a good forecheck by Zibanejad and Kreider, Vatrano tried a backhand wrap-around that Vasilevskiy denied. The shots were even at six apiece.

Kucherov and Stamkos continued to get golden opportunities. However, they weren’t able to bury them. Whether it was Shesterkin making the big saves or getting help from his defense with Trouba preventing a goal, the Rangers were a bit lucky in the first period.

They did earn the game’s first power play when Chytil was held by Brandon Hagel. After a strong pad save from Vasilevskiy to deny Zibanejad, an aggressive Bolts’ penalty kill forced some mistakes to get the puck out. Paul had a takeaway to test Shesterkin shorthanded. He made the stop.

With time winding down, a good rush by Panarin allowed him to find the trailer Fox for a shot that went wide. The first concluded with it still tied.

For the most part, the stats were even. Tampa led in shots 11-8 and attempts 20-16. The Rangers had 11 giveaways. Something that had to be cleaned up. Here was my urgent message for the team.

The second period was interesting. At first, it was back and forth. But as it moved on, it was the Rangers who dictated the terms. Their heavier forecheck made a difference.

Early on, Zibanejad got a tricky deflection on Vasilevskiy that he made a good save on. Prior, he also stopped Miller on a tough low shot.

The third line had a tough time on an early shift against Stamkos. They turned it over three different times. But Stamkos missed wide on a one-timer from the slot. That’s probably in if he hits the net. Those kind of misses were part of the story for the Lightning.

They would have another great look at going ahead. When a changing Trouba fell down, it looked like they’d go ahead. Instead, a racing Vatrano broke up a two-on-one by blocking a pass across. Some great hustle.

At the first stoppage, an aggressive Lafreniere searched for a rebound that wasn’t there with Vasilevskiy covering. He got the treatment after the whistle. Playoff hockey.

On a shift, Fox was able to find Vatrano open for a long shot that beat Vasilevskiy high blocker for a 2-1 lead at 7:50. It was a good shot, but one Vasilevskiy would want back.

The next few minutes were insane. With the play continuing to be wide open, both teams had chances. First, Hedman hit a post. Then, Shesterkin stopped Ross Colton. On the other side, Strome was robbed by Vasilevskiy.

On a rush, Stamkos got off a tough backhand that Cirelli deflected off Shesterkin. The rebound came right to Palat, who sent his backhand past him to tie the score at 8:32.

But after goals 42 seconds apart, Chytil answered back 1:37 later. On a good cycle where Lafreniere sent the puck behind the net to Kakko, he came out and centered for an easy Chytil finish to put the Blueshirts back up 3-2. That made it three goals over 2:09. Something nobody could’ve predicted.

With an assist on the goal, that gave Lafreniere eight points. The most for a Ranger in the playoffs 20 years old or younger. He wasn’t done. The former top pick continues to blossom before our eyes on the biggest stage. Where are all the nimrods who called him a bust? Probably crying in their beer.

On a key shift where Miller pinched up, the Lightning were able to move the puck ahead for Killorn. With Miller giving chase, Killorn moved in and was thwarted by a clutch Shesterkin. It was the biggest save of the game.

What followed was the shift. It started with great pressure from the third line. Vasilevskiy made tough saves on both Chytil and Kakko. But with Mikhail Sergachev and Cernak pinned in due to the long change, they couldn’t get the puck out.

On what was a great keep by Fox, who’s a magician on those plays at the blue line, he got the puck to Lafreniere. He then moved it across to Miller. He then sent a perfect pass across for a Chytil one-timer past Vasilevskiy that gave him his second two-goal game in the PLAYOFFS! The same Chytil who had eight goals in the regular season. He now is up to seven for the postseason.

It was phenomenal. To see those three kids who are all 22 or younger play so well is so exciting. They deserved all the cheers they received. This is what The Letter was all about. I wonder what Jeff Gorton and John Davidson are thinking. They had a hand in this.

The best part was they finished the period. There were no late Lightning goals that could’ve given them momentum. The Rangers outshot Tampa 17-10. All at five-on-five. The best period of the season.

The game wasn’t over until it was. With severe thunderstorms in our area temporarily knocking out the TV, I switched to the radio for the third. Getting the chance to listen to the legendary Sam Rosen call the action alongside Dave Maloney didn’t disappoint. It was enjoyable.

On a play started by Trouba up to Copp, he fed Panarin on a two-on-one for a perfect wrist shot that went high, short side to put it away at just 30 seconds in.

That finished off the Lightning. They committed too many mistakes. Panarin sucked Killorn into a fugazi holding minor. Basically, he created the penalty and spun around.

Back on the power play, this time they connected. After some good saves from Vasilevskiy on Panarin and Zibanejad, the top unit finally converted when Fox and Panarin combined to set up Zibanejad for a rocket that made it 6-2 with 13:54 remaining.

One of the ridiculous storylines was how the Rangers hadn’t faced a starter in the first two rounds. Outside of Tristan Jarry who they beat in Game Seven, that’s true. But they still had to earn it. Especially with Carolina defending so well in front of Antti Raanta. Sometimes, you need luck to go deep. In this round, they’re facing the best goalie. JD nailed it here.

Then came the chants of “Igor’s Better,” from some misguided fans. Ridiculous. You’d think we were a new franchise. Not one that’s been in existence for nearly a century. It’s foolish to be chanting that during the first game. Talk after the series if they win.

With the game decided, that didn’t stop the Lightning from mucking it up late. With 1:46 left, it got heated. There had been some battles and talking throughout. But with Goodrow getting an original penalty for cross-checking Hagel, you had Cal Foote repeatedly punch Motte with his glove on. Maloney went nuts on the radio.

Speaking of which, Reaves wanted Maroon. The linesmen broke it up. Braden Schneider exchanged pleasantries with Bellemare. Justin Braun and Hagel did the same. You also had Goodrow and McDonagh mixing it up. In total, there were 11 minors for 22 penalty minutes at the 18:14 mark.

Once that dissipated, things cooled down. As the buzzer sounded, the leftover Rangers congratulated Shesterkin. Now, it’s onto Game Two on Friday. You know the Lightning are coming. They’ll have a better effort tomorrow night. They just have to be ready for it.

Great game. They now have a series lead for the first time in this postseason. Don’t settle. Get the next game to really put the pressure in the Bolts.

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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