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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Rangers, Islanders games show NHL's return is the real deal

The Islanders warm up prior to Game One

The Islanders warm up prior to Game One against the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 1, 2020 in Toronto. Credit: Getty Images/Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo

It took all of 61 seconds to drive home the point: This is real, beyond the mere it’s-good-to-have-hockey back vibe that animated the runup to the big day.

Unlike baseball and basketball, the NHL returned from its COVID-19 hiatus and dove right into this version of the playoffs on Saturday — the first postseason action in the big four North American sports since Super Bowl LIV six months ago.

Then, boom! At 1:01 of the first period of the first game, Jaccob Slavin flipped the puck over Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulder, the Hurricanes led the Rangers, and the NHL was off and skating.

The Rangers would go on to lose Game 1 of their qualifying round series against Carolina, 3-2, after a lackluster outing.

Not much more than an hour later, the Islanders followed them onto the ice at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for their qualifying round opener against the Panthers and fashioned a fine all-around performance to win, 2-1.

There have not been best-of-five playoffs in the NHL since 1986, but historically 82 percent of teams that win the first game in such series advance, so draw your own conclusions.

But again, whichever side of it you were on, the fun was that it counted, despite the odd backdrop. And oddly, the oddness was not as odd as one might expect.

Unlike in baseball, where the empty stands are glaring and turn up in nearly every camera angle, the nature of hockey and the setup in Toronto made the lack of fans not much of a distraction.

The sounds of the game itself dominated, and that was enough. And the intensity of play was at postseason level, further making things seem not-so-strange.

“That’s why we’re hockey players,” the Islanders’ Anthony Beauvillier said. “We want to be in those games, high-intensity, high-pace games.” That is one reason hockey fans like the sport, too.

MSG Networks’ coverage added to the relative normalcy. Sam Rosen, Joe Micheletti, Brendan Burke and Butch Goring called the games from a studio in Manhattan, but it was seamless enough that you would not have known it if you did not know it.

Will the NHL be able to keep its bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton safe from COVID-19 infections and crown a Stanley Cup champion early this autumn?

At the moment, that seems like a pretty good bet. But this stuff is fragile, as we have learned from the struggles of non-bubble Major League Baseball.

Back to the hockey: It was quite good all things considered, certainly so in the case of the Islanders, who got off to a fast start, stumbled a bit in the middle but closed out the Panthers impressively.

The Islanders entered the break on an 0-3-4 slide, but they were on their game against Florida, even after losing defenseman Johnny Boychuk to a possible concussion early in the second period.

“Probably a lot of built-up animosity and energy and a lot of different emotions,” Brock Nelson said. “The energy and pace was high.”

The Rangers added a dramatic touch when they started Lundqvist in goal instead of young Igor Shesterkin, who was declared “unfit to play” for undisclosed reasons.

“I was happy I got the opportunity to play,” the old pro said, unsure whether he will get another in Game 2.

Coach David Quinn was blunt about his team’s failure to fight its way toward the opponent’s goal, and its failure to convert on seven power-play chances. “We were just too slow,” he said.

The Rangers might have been slow out of the gate, but for the NHL, it was a fast start to a two-month sprint.

In a letter to fans posted on NHL.com, commissioner Gary Bettman wrote, “I thank you for your patience. I thank you for your passion.”

On Day One, the players rewarded hockey fans for both.

New York Sports