This was supposed to be the boring, defensive-oriented matchup, but the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning flatly rejected this notion, as the Rangers skated off with a 6-2 win over the two-time defending champs at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
Filip Chytil scored twice in the second period as the Rangers pulled away from the Lightning in front of a packed, raucous home crowd. Igor Shesterkin made 37 saves and outdueled Andrei Vasilevskiy, as the Rangers pulled away from the Lightning during the final two periods.
Here are four takeaways from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
The Kids Are Alright
As a collective hockey community, we’ve perhaps become spoiled by precociousness. Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko didn’t immediately produce the gaudy stats we’ve come to expect from the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in their respective draft years, prompting many to speculate if the Rangers had rushed their top prospects to the NHL.
Neither player has topped 35 points in a regular season, a somewhat arbitrary endpoint that illustrates how they haven’t immediately become the top-six scorers they were projected to be in 2019 and 2020. None of that matters now. In conjunction with Filip Chytil – who was the best skater on the ice for the Rangers on Wednesday — New York’s Kid Line proved to be more than alright, they changed the trajectory of the game entirely during the second period and never looked back.
HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THE KIDS? pic.twitter.com/6diUlk7PU7
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) June 2, 2022
In the same arena where Wayne Gretzky ended his career 23 years ago, Kakko operated in the Great One’s office with tremendous results to set up Chytil’s first goal. Kakko had all day to assess his options and when Victor Hedman halfheartedly reached for the puck, he found a cutting Chytil, who wired it past Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy (more on him below) was rendered vulnerable from shots outside the slot on his blocker side, goals that he may have some regrets about, but on this one, he had no chance, while Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Ross Colton and Corey Perry were all caught flat-footed.
— Rangers Videos (@SNYRangers) June 2, 2022
Chytil’s second goal, which sent the Madison Square Garden faithful into a frenzy, was another thing of beauty. Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller were excellent for the Rangers, the latter picking his spots well in transition while authoring a solid defensive performance. Miller’s best play of the night generated the insurance goal, for which he disseminated a perfect cross-ice feed to Chytil, who was left wide-open for the one-timer and Vasilevskiy was once again helpless.
The Athletic’s Shayna Goldman noted that the Lafreniere-Kakko-Chytil line has outscored their opponents 9-5 at 5-on-5. And though they were outchanced 8-6 at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick, it ultimately didn’t matter. They made the most of their opportunities and no offense to the Hurricanes, but this was their defining performance of the playoffs thus far, on the biggest possible stage in both a literal and proverbial sense.
The kids are more than alright, they ran the show, for at least one night. We could all stand to be a little more patient.
Alexis Lafrenière assisted on two of three @NYRangers goals in the second period and now has 2-7—9 in 15 career #StanleyCup Playoffs games.#NHLStats: https://t.co/CQrDKGSXru pic.twitter.com/uRmII2HxiA
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) June 2, 2022
The showdown between the world’s two best goaltenders grabbed the marquee and for good reason. After one night, advantage Igor Shesterkin.
Shesterkin was deferral to Vasilevskiy prior to the season, noting that last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy is the best goalie in the world, but he wasn’t maudlin. New York’s star also noted that he had rarely played with Vasilevskiy as a teammate and the countrymen aren’t overly friendly by any definition. Shesterkin was the NHL’s best goalie in the regular season, Vasilevskiy has earned his reputation as the premier player at his position, but it wasn’t particularly close on Wednesday.
After the Rangers jumped out to an early lead on a Chris Kreider goal, generated from a perfect fake shot from Mika Zibanejad, the Lightning came roaring back, controlling a startling 74 percent of the expected goals in all situations. Shesterkin made a number of outstanding saves before The Kid Line worked their magic in the second period, frustrating Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat, who up to that point were arguably Tampa’s best players. Shesterkin also robbed Alex Killorn in the second period, with the Rangers holding onto a 4-2 lead, effectively serving as a Mariano Rivera-esque closer.
Key saves from Shesterkin and Trouba keep the score even pic.twitter.com/hpgiOFuysw
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) June 2, 2022
There was a frightening moment in the third period, as Stamkos accidentally made contact with Shesterkin’s head and the Vezina finalist needed a few minutes to get up. Shesterkin should’ve almost certainly been evaluated for a concussion, as per protocol, but the game went on without an escalating incident. No harm, no foul, and while the Lightning started generating a number of quality looks, it was too little, too late, as Shesterkin was far superior to his counterpart.
This burgeoning individual rivalry wasn’t lost on the home fans, who started a boisterous “IGOR’S BETTER” chant eight minutes into the third period. In Game 1, he absolutely was in a 37-save performance, while Vasilevskiy was beaten on his blocker side from non-prime scoring locations. Shesterkin saved over two goals than expected per Natural Stat Trick, and the eye test would indicate he certainly was worth a two-goal variance throughout the contest.
If Igor’s better for the majority of the series, it will be the Rangers’ easiest path to victory against the league’s crown jewel.
Lightning’s superior possession and shot creation ultimately didn’t matter
During the first two rounds, the Lightning settled into a counterattacking style perhaps out of necessity against the Maple Leafs and Panthers, two of the best possession and shot-creation teams in the NHL. Tampa Bay can usually dominate games because of Vasilevskiy, the interchangeability of its forward corps, the top-tier individual talents of Stamkos, Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, and the unmatched continuity. This year, it has developed a tendency to sit back and punish opponents for their mistakes, as opposed to dictating the game. Tampa Bay finished with a 58 percent share of the expected goals and it ultimately didn’t matter against a New York team buoyed by Shesterkin, and a third line that was the most effective unit on the ice.
It was looking like a typical, ‘never underestimate the heart of a champion’ type of performance from the Lightning midway through the first period. After the Lightning were punched by Chris Kreider’s opening goal, they responded with their best stretch of the game, controlling a 74 percent share of the expected goals, while Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Anthony Cirelli in particular were buzzing up the ice, looking to exploit space in transition.
Tampa Bay capitulated during the second period, allowing New York’s Kid Line in particular to dominate in the low cycle, as the Rangers earned a 64 percent share of the expected goals. New York took its chances well and after an errant opening 25 minutes, it began to put an emphasis on generating opportunities in the slot or below, after initially trying to run the offense through point shots and deflections through screens.
New York entered Wednesday’s game as the worst possession team remaining in the dance. It didn’t matter. Take your chances well, focus on getting shots in prime areas, and good things will happen. If only it were that simple, all the time.
How will the Lightning navigate the Point of no return?
Ahead of Game 1, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper indicated that Brayden Point may not return for the duration of the playoffs. Point suffered an injury against the Maple Leafs in Game 7 and missed the entire second-round series against the Panthers.
"I would temper any of the expectations of him coming back at all,” Cooper said of Point’s status prior to Game 1.
How will the Lightning navigate the, uh, Point of no return? Nick Paul was excellent against the Panthers and started the first period with a series of strong shifts, particularly on the penalty kill where he generated a prime scoring chance, with Kucherov ultimately missing the net. Paul then engineered Tampa Bay’s best penalty kill of the night during the final minutes of the first period.
But perhaps playing in a top-six role is ultimately unsustainable: Paul finished with the worst 5-on-5 Corsi For score on the evening for the Lightning at 34 percent. He’s been a terrific add for the Lightning since the deadline, but he is miscast in this role if he’s expected to produce like a top-six forward for large stretches.
Tampa Bay has built its dynasty on its flexibility throughout the lineup and Jon Cooper has proven to be masterful with in-series adjustments during the consecutive Cup runs. So where does he go from here? He could utilize Stamkos as a winger in certain scenarios, and perhaps double shift Kucherov if Tampa’s offense stalls like it did during the latter two frames on Wednesday.
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