It’s an overstatement to say that the New York Rangers had to win Game 1. It isn’t an overstatement to say that they should have, and that their hopes of winning the 2014 Stanley Cup have now diminished thanks to their inability to execute.
With the exception of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who virtually forced overtime by himself, the Rangers have to look at this as a significant missed opportunity.
Fatigue was a major factor working in New York’s favour in a way that it likely won’t in the future. In his postgame availability, carried live on the NHL Network, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter acknowledged the Rangers’ advantage in that department when asked about L.A.’s poor play in the early going.
“I think they had a lot of energy and were fresh,” he said, citing New York’s strength in first periods throughout the postseason before adding, “We were not on full tanks.”
The Rangers came out flying, taking a 2-0 lead and generating 20 shot attempts to L.A.’s nine over the first three-quarters of the opening period. With Lundqvist in net and the Kings on their heels, New York was well on its way to taking a 1-0 lead in its series.
It was not to be.
A Kyle Clifford chip shot from in tight to the net got the Kings on the board before the end of the opening frame, and a gorgeous play by all-world defenceman Drew Doughty knotted the score at two goals each early in the second period:
While L.A. was able to fight its way back into the contest, things were pretty even through 40 minutes. Then came the third period and the total collapse of the Rangers:
“I liked the way we played in the first two periods,” said New York coach Alain Vigneault after the game. “I thought it was a hard-fought first 40 minutes by both teams. Not quite sure what happened there in the third…They definitely took it to us in the third.”
CBC’s Scott Oake reported that associate coach Scott Arniel was less diplomatic when he talked to him before the overtime, calling the period “one of the worst” he’d seen in the postseason.
The Rangers, however, were still in the game at that point, because Lundqvist stopped everything he faced in the third. Per Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times:
It wasn’t enough. In the overtime period, defenceman Dan Girardi attempted to pass the puck out of the defensive zone and whiffed on his first attempt, but not before his teammates had advanced in anticipation of the pass.
On his second try, Girardi put the puck on the tape of Mike Richards, who fed Justin Williams the puck in the slot. Williams, who had plenty of time and space, ended the game:
After the game, CBC’s panel focused on what they saw as the Rangers’ pivotal mistake: not keeping pressure on Los Angeles after establishing the 2-0 lead.
“When you have that 2-0 lead and your foot on their throat, don’t let up,” said analyst Kelly Hrudey.
“It was New York’s game. They had to strike,” added his colleague P.J. Stock. “You had them on the mat, you had them down and you let them back up.”
The end result was a squandered opportunity. Game 1 represented New York’s best chance to take advantage of a fatigued Kings team; now that club will have two full days of rest before the teams meet again on Saturday. It likely won’t be as easy to secure an early lead once Los Angeles is rested.
The Rangers’ inability to put pucks on net hurt them, too. The Kings outshot the Rangers 43 to 27 but had their shots missed or blocked only 21 times to New York’s 36. New York showed that it could compete with the Kings possession-wise in the contest, but that big possession advantage doesn’t matter if the team can’t get shots through to net, something it struggled with in the opening game of this series.
The one thing New York doesn’t have to change is in net, where Lundqvist gave it every chance to win. If he plays like this throughout, it will be everything that the Rangers could ask for. They need to find a way to do more in front of him, or it will all be for naught.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.