To say the Lightning showed some rust after a long layoff is not to take anything away from the Rangers’ winning performance in Game 1, it’s simply pointing out the truth.
It’s also a playoff truth that each successive performance must improve for an ultimately victorious outcome.
So, the Rangers will have to play even better in Friday night’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden. Either way, there are many indications this series is quite likely to be a long one even after the Rangers’ dominated, 6-2, on Wednesday night as the Lightning played for the first time since completing a four-game sweep of the Panthers on May 23.
After all, there are a myriad of reasons why the Lightning have won two straight Stanley Cups and 10 straight playoff series and are 17-0 in that span in games following a loss.
To use a movie analogy: Pre-title sequences often hint of what’s to come without giving away the plot and, comparing Rangers-Lightning to a motion picture, the opening credits are just starting to roll.
“Yeah, it’s a lot of work,” said Alexis Lafreniere, sounding wise to the ways of the postseason even at age 20. “You know, every team that makes the playoffs is a good team and every series is really hard to win. So, we won two [series] but there’s still a long way to go and a still a lot of work to do.”
“We take it one game at a time,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We know we won last night and we’re up 1-0 in the series. But it doesn’t make a difference. You just worry about the next game. You move on and you play the game and you get ready for the next one.”
The Rangers did a lot right in Game 1 so, admittedly, asking for a better performance sounds like nitpicking. But the Rangers did allow 39 shots on a superb Igor Shesterkin and it might have been 3-1 in the Lightning’s favor by the end of the first period had it not been for the goalie’s work and, yes, the rust shown by the Lightning in terms of finishing their Grade A chances.
The Rangers could stand to tighten their defensive effort somewhat and take away some of the Lightning’s speed through the neutral zone.
Again, it sounds like nitpicking.
But one of the more interesting aspects of Game 2 is going to be assessing whether the Rangers do elevate their game. Despite the presence of veterans such as Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin — all who scored goals in Game 1 — and defenseman Jacob Trouba, this is this particular group’s first real playoff run together.
It is still a learning process for them 15 games in, even with The Kid Line — Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and Lafreniere — playing such mature hockey and young defensemen K’Andre Miller, Braden Schneider and Adam Fox playing so stoutly.
“Last night was a real positive game for us,” Gallant said. “We’ve played a lot better hockey in the playoffs, for sure. We’re just getting more confident every time we win a hockey game.”
“You’ve got to have the same mindset, backs against the wall, up, down, every game is important,” defenseman Justin Braun said. “You’ve got to come out with the same mindset that this is the night you need to get it done or else it’s tied up going back to their barn. This game is just as important as any other game we’ve played throughout the playoffs.”
Arguably, more important. It is the conference finals and the Rangers do have a chance for an impressive 2-0 series lead heading south for Sunday afternoon’s Game 3 at Amalie Arena.
Not that last year, against a different New York opponent, has anything to do with this year. But the Lightning did lose Game 1 of their semifinal series against the Islanders, though just by 2-1, before winning Game 2, 4-2.
The Rangers have shown consistently in the playoffs they can elevate their game when required.
But the Lightning will be better on Friday night and, in turn, more of the plot of this series will be revealed.