Mika Zibanejad #93 and Chris Kreider #20 of the Rangers look...

Mika Zibanejad #93 and Chris Kreider #20 of the Rangers look on late during the third period against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Wait: The Rangers have to beat this team four times?

This could be a problem. At least it looked that way after one game of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Everyone in hockey knew the Panthers were good, and oddsmakers had them as slight favorites to win the series.

But in Game 1 the defending Eastern Conference champions displayed all their powers and decisively outplayed the Rangers en route to a 3-0 victory.

The Rangers will have to improve in Game 2 on Friday and beyond, and they know it.

“Our whole entire game has got to be better,” Chris Kreider said when it was over.

That could well happen. The Rangers are built on toughness and resiliency, and they led the league in regular-season points. It would be a shock if they went down easily at this stage.

But the Panthers set the tone in Game 1 with a patient approach that flummoxed the Rangers, whose breakouts and passing game in general largely were a mess.

Among other things, Kreider noted the ice was not in mid-winter shape, given the warm weather that is part of playoff hockey.

He said it was not an excuse, since the Panthers played on it, too. But he said it is a reason to focus on the basics this time of year.

“Everything has to be simple,” Kreider said. “They put everything behind us and they went to work. We didn’t do it nearly enough, and even when we did, we were disjointed with our forecheck.”

He said the “plain, simple, quick hockey” that was required “wasn’t there nearly enough.”

“I think we have a tendency sometimes to try to do a little bit too much when it’s not there,” Kreider said. “The desire is there. The want is there. But you have to work smart, not just hard, or you’re going to end up being disjointed.”

The home team did have its chances, including hitting a couple of posts, missing on a couple of breakaways and nearly tying it at 1-1 during a mad scramble late in the third period.

But when Alexis Lafreniere accidentally tipped in a centering pass by Carter Verhaeghe at 16:12 of the third to make it 2-0, the Panthers were all but assured the victory that they deserved.

“That’s the game that’s going to be played,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “There’s not going to be a ton of run-and-gun. It’s going to be advancing the puck through zones and capitalizing on mistakes.”

Florida controlled the first period and got rewarded for its work at 16:26, when Matthew Tkachuk seemed to catch Igor Shesterkin off guard with a quick wrister to his glove side.

The play began when the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin flubbed a pass attempt, which led Gustav Forsling bringing the puck up ice and handing it off to Tkachuk.

Tkachuk fired with Adam Fox defending him, and it was 1-0.

The Rangers nearly tied it about a minute later when Braden Schneider got a breakaway. But his shot caromed off the right post and out of danger.

The Panthers continued to frustrate the Rangers for large chunks of the second period, including one in which they went more than 14 minutes without a shot.

As the Rangers’ struggles dragged on, coach Peter Laviolette started mixing and matching his lines to try to find the right combination to generate something.

Lafreniere hit the post after that third-period flurry in front of Bobrovsky, but that was the last gasp for the Rangers.

It was the first time they have been shut out in these playoffs.

As Bobrovsky came off the ice, Florida coach Paul Maurice jokingly went up to him and said, “It’s about time you did something!” (There was an expletive in there, also.)

The Rangers cannot afford for him to do much more of this.

They won their first three games in each of the playoffs’ first two series, against the Capitals and Hurricanes.

That is not generally how things work in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s tough out there. So the Rangers are going to have to work for this, which is as it should be.

The problem here is that they must beat the Panthers four times in the next six games to advance. On Wednesday night, that felt like a steep hill to climb.


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