Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night, we were expecting to see a goaltending battle between Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury — a future Hall of Famer vs. a former Stanley Cup winner.
By 9:15, we had Antti Raanta vs. Jeff Zatkoff — two guys who entered the night tied with you, me and Kobe Bryant in NHL playoff appearances in goal.
Welcome to the postseason, hockey fans, where one always can count on a long, strange trip.
Check that: One always can count on a strange trip.
It might not be that long for the Rangers if Lundqvist does not get well soon after taking Marc Staal’s stick blade to his right eye late in the first period of a 5-2 loss in Game 1 of the first round against the Penguins.
That matter seemed very much in question after the game, when coach Alain Vigneault said little other than that his star would be reevaluated today.
But there are two things we do know now:
The Rangers wasted an opportunity to take advantage of a goaltender with no experience on this grand a stage as Fleury remained out because of post-concussion symptoms despite several signs he would play.
And that the game was an ominous sign the Penguins are not about to cool off despite a long list of injuries. Gee, maybe this is why both the Islanders and Rangers seemed to prefer not facing them in the first round.
“Regardless of their goaltender, I think what stings is we talked about doing a job against their top line and we didn’t get the job done against them,” said Derek Stepan, who scored both Rangers goals. “We can’t give up five goals and expect to win a playoff hockey game.”
Four of the Penguins’ goals were scored by players on that top line — three by Patric Hornqvist and one by Sidney Crosby on a breakaway.
Still, the big story of the game was in goal.
Zatkoff was best known for, not much, really, prior to yesterday. Well, his great uncle, Roger Zatkoff, was a linebacker for the Packers and Lions in the 1950s.
Jeff hardly looked out of his element, though.
Early on the Rangers peppered him with shots. It almost appeared as if the Penguins were allowing them to shoot at will to give the new guy some experience. Just kidding. But it worked!
So, when exactly might we see Fleury back? “When we decide to put Marc-Andre in a game we’ll let you know,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said, icily.
With 48.2 seconds left in the first, Staal’s stick clipped Lundqvist as Staal was engaged in front of the net with the Penguins’ Oskar Sundqvist. Lundqvist collapsed, writhing in pain. Staal knew he had hit him in the helmet area but did not know exactly where.
“Anytime he goes down like that with his legs kicking, it’s not a good sigh,” Staal said.
Lundqvist was treated near the bench before returning. Briefly. It was only 30.6 seconds later that Hornqvist slipped a puck under him. He did not answer the bell for the second.
So, to review: The Rangers began Game 1 with a 111-0 edge in career playoff starts between the two goalies. They might enter Game 2 with a 1-1 tie if Raanta and Zatkoff return to their roles.
That’s not exactly what NBC had in mind for its showcase Saturday afternoon national matchup. But the Rangers have much more to worry about than TV ratings.
“Everyone has to step up and play a bigger role,” Stepan said. “That’s just the way it is.”