NEWARK – The dominant theme of the first-round playoff series featuring the Devils and Rangers is youth vs. experience.
The difference is stark. The Rangers entered the series with a combined 866 playoff games to the Devils’ 479, with Ondrej Palat alone accounting for 138 of those.
On Tuesday night, the (relatively) old guys won Round One.
Fueled by a three goals from 31-year-olds Chris Kreider and Vladimir Tarasenko, the Rangers won, 5-1, at the Prudential Center.
It was a clinic in effective special teams play – the Rangers were 2-for-3 on power plays, the Devils 0-for-4 – and grit in the form of 23 blocked shots.
The only goal the Rangers allowed was on a late penalty shot by Jack Hughes.
Kreider, who turns 32 later this month, scored both power play goals and now is the Rangers’ all-time leader in playoff goals with 36.
As is his custom, he refused to make a big deal of that – or any deal at all.
“We won Game 1,” he said when asked about the record. “Game 2 is the hardest one to win.”
Kreider also would not touch the more-experienced-team angle. That, too, is veteran savvy in its way.
While there was no getting away from that narrative, the Rangers sought to downplay it at every turn.
“We were the team that didn’t have quote-unquote much experience last year,” said Adam Fox, who had four assists. “Obviously, we have a lot of guys who have been through it before, but it’s just Game 1.”
Coach Gerard Gallant said, “Experience doesn’t mean a whole lot. We didn’t have much of it last year and we had a good, long run [to the conference finals].”
Of the 12 forwards the Rangers dressed for Game 1, eight were born in 1993 or earlier.
Not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily. In theory, players in their early 30s should have enough left physically and more going for them mentally.
It was a day for 30-somethings from the start, with Mika Zibanejad marking his 30th birthday.
As Zibanejad said before the game, “Thirty means you have a lot of experience and you’re right in your peak. It’s a nice, round number, and I’m excited for it.”
In theory, the Devils’ young legs will benefit them later in the series, which resumes at the Rock on Thursday night.
But the Rangers are built to win now and showed how that is done in Game 1.
The night began with a charged atmosphere as the rivalry of cross-river neighbors resumed in the playoffs after an 11-year hiatus.
The Rangers were greeted with thunderous boos from a mostly red-clad crowd that seemed to be about 75% full of Devils fans.
It was the sort of hostile environment a team such as the Rangers is unlikely to find intimidating. (Wait until those young Devils get to Madison Square Garden for Game 3!)
Zibanejad knows how the Devils without playoff experience feel.
He recalled his first visit to the postseason, having just turned 20 in the lockout-delayed 2013 season, when he scored one goal in 10 games for Ottawa against the Canadiens and Penguins.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “It was a long time ago . . . Obviously, you can feel it in the building, you see all the towels and you know it’s different than the regular season.
“It’s intense, it’s fun, it’s a high-compete level. So that’s something we look forward to.”
The big question is whether the Rangers’ experience will be a decisive edge, and how the Devils will react to this situation.
“It’s hard for me to say, because I’m sure my first playoff experience is not the same as other guys’,” Zibanejad said of what the Devils might be going through.
“We’re all different human beings. We react differently, the emotions, how you control them, whatever it might be.”
Age 30 can be an alarm bell for professional athletes, signaling they have more time behind them than ahead.
Asked how he plans to stay sharp as he ages, Zibanejad said, “Well, I’ve been 30 for a few hours, so let me answer that question in a few years.”
These Rangers know they do not have a few years of Stanley Cup window left. There is pressure to get the job done now.
On Tuesday, they took the first step of 16.