Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

There was no disputing the Rangers' resume entering the Stanley Cup playoffs, to which they arrived with the best record in the NHL and the most points in franchise history.

But even inside the team's dressing room this week, there had been a mild undercurrent of concern about how they would respond after a longer-than-ideal break following the end of the regular season Saturday.

After the morning skate on Thursday, Rick Nash lamented that the league had "put us through the wringer with so many games to finish off, then we get five days off. So it was a bit strange."

Would the layoff after 16 games in the final four weeks of the regular season mean refreshment -- or rust? "We'll see how it goes tonight," Nash said.

It did not take long for Nash to get his answer.

Twenty-eight seconds into Game 1 of what the Rangers hope will be a 16-victory, two-month playoff adventure, Derick Brassard banged the rebound of a shot by Nash past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

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It was the second-fastest playoff goal in team history -- one second later than Ed Hospodar's tally against the Kings in 1981 -- and exactly the start the Rangers needed to establish who was boss in a series in which they are heavily favored.

"I don't care how far we went last year and the experience we have in here," Martin St. Louis said. "I'm 39 years old and I still get the butterflies before the first playoff game. I think it's normal.

"To get that first goal right away, it puts you at ease a little bit."

Said captain Ryan McDonagh, who scored the other Rangers goal: "It's an ideal start, for sure."

That was particularly true because the Rangers spent most of the rest of the game in a sloppy, sometimes frustrating tussle with the Penguins, who scored in the second period and had their chances down the stretch.


The Rangers entered the series wary of Pittsburgh, which despite a slew of injuries and a poor finish still brought plenty of star power to Big Town, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Tanner Glass, who played for the Penguins when the Rangers ousted them in last year's seven-game series, said before the game, "It's funny. You finish No. 1 overall and you get Crosby and Malkin in the first round. That's not the way you draw it up."

But Crosby managed only one shot on goal and Malkin two.

If the Rangers keep up that sort of thing in the coming days, they should easily advance to the conference semifinals against the Islanders or Capitals.

Of course, the Penguins had the same layoff the Rangers did, but given the state of their health and their lackluster play entering the playoffs, there was no downside for them.

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The Rangers just wanted to keep playing. Then they showed how ready they were less than a half-minute in.

"It definitely helped coming out fast," St. Louis said.

Brassard said Nash was not even trying to score on his shot from just outside the faceoff circle. He said he and Nash work regularly in practice on having Brassard storm the middle of the ice to be in position for a rebound.

"We want to have a guy always in the middle there, and if you look at our practices, you're going to find that play quite often," he said.

Penguins defenseman Paul Martin appeared to lose track of Brassard, and that was that.

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"I thought we had a lot of jump tonight," St. Louis said.

On Thursday night, all it took was one giant leap to get started. Fifteen wins to go.