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Give Rangers' defense some credit for one-goal game streak

Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers misses

Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers misses a first period scoring chance in the first period against the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The final score was 2-1 because, well, what else could it possibly have been?

This is what the Rangers do these days. So far, it has served them well, getting them to the Eastern Conference finals and giving them a 1-0 series lead on the Lightning on Saturday.

They have played to nine 2-1 decisions in 13 playoff games this year -- another finished 1-0 -- and their NHL-record-by-a-wide-margin 15 consecutive one-goal games in the playoffs (dating to last season) is nothing short of astounding.

OK, all of the above is somewhat of a statistical quirk. They came extremely close to empty-net goals Saturday on a couple of occasions. But it also illustrates a point.

Sometimes the brilliance -- and name recognition -- of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist obscures the defensive work in front of him.

This is a good time to give a nod to that, especially after a game in which he did not need to be all that great against the top-scoring team in the league in the regular season.

"To be honest, I don't think we tested Lundqvist as much as we should have," said Lightning star Steven Stamkos, who had one shot on goal and only one other shot attempt.

Tampa Bay had 24 shots overall, and its only goal came on a power play.

Meanwhile, the Rangers' top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi mostly handled Tampa Bay's "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, who had the Lightning's only goal.

McDonagh, Girardi and Marc Staal, who with Dan Boyle often matched up with Stamkos' line, all said the key to the defensive effort was the Rangers' work in their offensive zone, bottling up the Lightning before it could get started.

"We talked about making them play the whole length of the ice and not give them odd-man looks," McDonagh said.

"We didn't give them too many looks coming clean down the ice," Staal said.

"We made them play in our offensive zone; it kind of takes their speed away and their talent away," Girardi said. "It's hard to defend when they get going. You have to make sure they have to come through all of us and play a 200-foot game."

All concerned also mentioned the Rangers' care with the puck. Tampa Bay had only four takeaways.

The style of play Saturday was a breath of fresh air after a pair of series in which the Penguins and Capitals sought to slow down the swift Rangers.

The Lightning likes to race up and down the ice just like the Rangers do, which created much more open space than in the previous two rounds.

The fact that the Rangers held their opponent to a single goal for the eighth time in 13 postseason games under those circumstances made it all the more impressive.

"I think it helps when we're in that position almost every night that you keep your focus on the right things," Lundqvist said. "We all understand that every play matters throughout the game."

It's only one game, of course, and the Lightning certainly has the firepower to change the script come Game 2 Monday night at the Garden.

But the Rangers' stinginess has been going on long enough that it's not a quirk, it's a pattern.

Their seven victories when scoring two or fewer goals ties three other teams for the record for one playoff season -- and they still have seven more potential victories to go!

Anyone want to bet on what the final scores might be?

"You almost think they missed that empty net on purpose to keep it going," Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop said of the one-goal-games streak. "You know they've been playing close games all of the playoffs. I don't expect it to be any different."

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