When the Rangers lost to the Boston Bruins in five last season in the second round of the playoffs, the first game of the series was particularly frustrating for New York fans. Going into the matchup there was little doubt about who was the better team, as the Bruins were coming off their for-the-ages Game 7 win over Toronto. Still, in Game 1, the Rangers tied things up at 1-1 shortly before the second intermission and gave themselves a 2-1 lead immediately after returning to the ice. Not only were they hanging in there with the Big Bad Bruins, they were even ahead!
The feeling of hey, maybe they can win this thing didn’t last for long, though, because about a minute later the Bruins tied the game. From there, they dominated it — just glance at the shot-attempt timeline and notice how the Bruins took over for most of the third period and all of overtime. When Brad Marchand scored in sudden death to give Boston the win, it felt as if it had been bound to happen. It also felt like the Rangers had let one slip away.
Last night’s Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final had a similar feel. Fifteen minutes into the game, the Rangers had a 2-0 lead thanks to an unassisted breakaway goal from Benoit Pouliot and a shorthand score by Carl Hagelin. At the divey San Francisco bar Ace’s where I was watching, the dozens of Rangers fans on hand were jumping, hugging, and singing the New York goal song. (You could tell it was an authentic NY bar because there were two ancient men bitching that the Yankees game wasn’t on the main screen, the one above the Eli Manning jersey.)
Having just come from Chicago, where L.A. spotted the Blackhawks two similarly quick goals before breaking their hearts in overtime, I felt uneasy about all of this.
Like clockwork, the comeback Kings halved the deficit almost immediately, and then tied the game six and a half minutes into the second period, when Drew Doughty toe-dragged around Derek Dorsett, skated the puck in toward the net, and scored. Just like that, any advantage the Rangers might have had (their extra rest, their speedy end-to-end rushes) faded into the background.
New York still had some quality chances — including a rush by Hagelin with less than a minute to play in regulation that could well have been the game winner — but for the most part, the remainder of the game was all Kings. Los Angeles took the first 14 shots of the third period and ultimately outshot New York in that frame by a margin of 20-3. A bad job managing the puck by Dan Girardi in overtime, compounded by a complete lack of support from his teammates, gave Justin Williams the chance for the overtime dagger. Ace’s got a whole lot quieter. (The legend of Williams continues to grow — do a Twitter search for “Justin Williams Robert Horry” and you’ll see numerous comparisons.)
“I don’t feel we gave it away,” Martin St. Louis said after the game. “I wouldn’t say ‘Gave one away,'” said Hagelin. You’d expect them to say that; if there’s one thing this Rangers team has excelled at, it’s minimizing the damage of losses and moving on to the next match. There were plenty of good things to take away from the game (the first 40 minutes, at least). The Kings have lost the first game in two of the three series they’ve won in this postseason. All is not lost. Still, it was difficult, after watching and remembering what happened against Boston last year, to really believe what they had to say.