The New York Rangers went into Game 1 as underdogs. Montreal had swept the series 3-0, Carey Price had not lost a regulation game to the Rangers since they were defeated in the 2014 playoffs, and the records over the past twenty games could not have been more different.
But a funny thing happened on Wednesday night, Henrik Lundqvist turned around a middling season and pitched his 10th playoff shutout - and in so doing, became the sole franchise leader, moving one ahead of Mike Richter - and the Rangers found a way to get a bit better in the defensive zone.
To be fair, the Canadiens haven't been the most offensively gifted team, and typically have played close games, and it's fair to say they missed more than a handful of opportunities last night. Still Lundqvist played a strong, assertive game and fought for every save like this was his last opportunity to win the Cup.
Defensively, Brendan Smith and Brady Skjei had strong games. The fourth line in particularly had some dominating shifts, and earned the game's firtst goal from Tanner Glass, as well as a plethora of chances that included a Skjei strike that hit the inside of the goal post and ricocheted back into Price, and a Lindberg steal off of a Price clearing attempt that was only just denied by the Canadiens netminder as he scrambled back to his crease.
It seemed fitting that two of the players who have drawn the most attention from fans and media, should play such pivotal roles in the game. Lundqvist's form since returning from a hip injury, and for large parts of the season has been below his best, and Glass has been enemy number one for man, toiling away in the AHL for the majority of the year.
The play of Smith and Skjei though, was clearly a notch up from their recent form. Both played physically and confidently with the puck, and were among the advance stats leaders on the team, along with the fourth line.
Veteran Dan Girardi also showed some of the physical game that has been missing, though he still had his moments defensively, particularly in the first when the Canadiens came at the Rangers hard. Fellow veteran Marc Staal made it through with only a modicum of errors, while his line mate Nick Holden had a forgettable night, with several glaring turnovers in his first post-season action since 2014.
Up front, Mats Zuccarello took the offensive, and delivered or received several hits during the game. Of the veteran forwards, the Norwegian native was probably the most effective, though JT Miller also had his moments.
Getting a two game lead in a series has been a bit of a rarity in the past six post-seasons. In fourteen series, only twice have the Rangers managed to hold a two game advantage. The 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, and the 4-1 series win in the first round against Pittsburgh the following year.
On Friday they'll need to scramble every much as they did last night to try and eke out that two game advantage, and return to MSG with a chance to cclose out the series on home ice.