Most pundits and even a lot of fans, looked at this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins as pretty much a win for the Rangers. The Rangers had won the season series 3-1, with all three wins coming in the last six weeks of the season. By contrast, the Penguins had limped through the second half of the season, had lost their starting goaltender, and had a core that was into their mid 30s or beyond.
Contrast that with the remarkable season that the Rangers had, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in five years, and with a record that was just one win from the best in franchise history. It wasn't as if the Penguins last three playoff trips had been particularly remarkable, all three had ended with first round exits, including - like the Rangers - a loss in the play-in round in the shortened 2019-20 season.
You can see why there'd be optimisim, even belief this team could go all the way this year, buoyed by stand-out seasons by Chris Kreider and Igor Shesterkin, while ably supported by Mika Zibanejad, Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin.
It looked well founded, when the Rangers got out to a 2-0 lead, thanks to a first period power play goal from Fox, and an even strength tally early in the second from Adam Copp. Those first 23 minutes or soo saw the Rangers get the better of their more experienced opponents.
Perhaps it was the excitement of playing in their first playoff game, nine of the 19 participants in last night's game were playing in their first seven-game series of their careers, while a further nine were making their Ranger post-season debuts. Maybe that energy they came out with in the first, where they outhit the Penguins and dominated the play, maybe that caused the fade in the second period and beyond.
Whatever the reason, the Penguins quickly turned the tables on the back of some magic from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, the Penguins two leading regular season scorers, who took advantage of the Rangers inexperience to tie the game up in the second period, while unleashing 25 shots on goal, a playoff record for shots in a period for the Penguins, and also for the Rangers in shots allowed.
Still we believed, because Shesterkin kept the Rangers in it. Then Chris Kreider's shorthanded goal was followed by a boarding call on Jacob Trouba while the Rangers were killing off the remainder of Patrik Nemeth's holding call. Despite looking largely ineffective on the PP - they went 1 for 4 - the Rangers couldn't deny the tying goal.
But the tide had turned. That first period, plus the additional energy used to not only kill penalties, but also to defend, ultimately cost the Rangers. When Ryan Lindgren did not return for the start of the third, it meant that a tiring defense was put under even more pressure. Lindgren would eventually return, and would play parts of the first two OT periods, but the Rangers ended up starting the third OT with both K'Andre Miller and Lindgren in the lockerrom. Miller would return shortly before the winning goal, but at this point the Rangers defense was playing on fumes.
For their part, the Penguins were also down a player, losing Rickard Rakell in the first period when Ryan Lindgren caught him along the boards. Rakell required help from his team mates to leave the ice, and was later joined by goaltender Casey DeSmith in the second OT, when he unexpectedly made the trip off the ice.
With DeSmith's departure, the Penguins seemed to regain the offensive momemtum, overcoming a more measure/sluggish first OT, to again generate chances on Shesterkin.
By the time the game had ended, Shesterkin had faced a franchise record 83 shots, and had stopped 79 of them. Shesterkin had kept the team in the game, overcoming a deficiency that surfaced in the second, that being the inability to control the play, and deny chances.
Part of the problem was certainly poor decision making. The Rangers made 28 turnovers in the first 40 minutes, and moved away from playing a smart game to allow Pittsburgh back into the contest. They also failed to generate enough offensive opportunities on the backup netminder. The same is true when Louis Domingue came into the game. After a few chances early on, the Rangers again let Pittsburgh regain the momentum.
On the positive side, this took almost 106 minutes to decide, and was a one shot game for almost as much time as regulation. Shesterkin looked in fine form, and the Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko looked pretty confident together. It even appeared they had sealed the game with just over 3 minutes to play, though the goal was called back on goaltender-interference, a judgement call that we've seen go the other way in the past.
If the Rangers can take anything out of this game, it is that this was a closely fought contest that was decided in a single play, well beyond the bulk of the game had been played. The Penguins were the better team for much of the contest, but the Rangers looked the better team in the first, as well as the first OT.
It was a first taste for so many, and undoubtedly they'll look at how they played the second, and revisit some of their choices. I expect this team to be better prepared for tomororw, and to be more settled...even if they're still learning.
Experience may not be everything, but it can help teams from getting too high or too low on themselves, a characteristic we saw during the regular season, but now needs to be translated to the more high-pressure playoffs against a team that's had plenty of success in the past.