NEW YORK — Steven Stamkos sat in his stall and scratched at his golden beard and questioned things, which can happen to visitors in this town. The Tampa Bay Lightning had just lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final to the New York Rangers 2-1, and the winning goal came off a leg. It was a Rangers leg, as it happened. This is how it works here.
“We can’t expect to put a couple past a goalie of that calibre with the minimal chances that we had tonight,” said Stamkos.
A couple, yep. The Rangers have played 13 playoff games, and nine of them have ended 2-1. They have won seven times when they have scored two goals or fewer, which ties a record for a single playoff year. New York has allowed more than two goals twice in those 13 games, and scored more than twice three times. In this one they hit a post with the Tampa net empty, which kept the mathematical symmetry alive.
“It ends up being a 1-1 game off a shin pad, and that’s the playoffs for you,” said Ryan Callahan, the Lightning winger and former Rangers captain who played three days after undergoing an appendectomy.
New York dominated the first to no effect, and scored instead with 12.7 seconds left in the second period on a Derek Stepan rebound goal that required two or three good bounces to reach his stick. Tampa Bay scored a beautiful power-play goal to tie it — Victor Hedman to Tyler Johnson to Ondrej Palat, a slalom from side to side to side 6:45 into the third. Oh, that was pretty.
Then they all hunkered down and the Rangers killed penalties and the Lightning couldn’t score, and eventually New York’s Kevin Hayes gained control of the puck and kept it long enough to whirl it in front, where it bounced in off Dominic Moore’s shin pad with 2:45 left. Playoff goal.
“It’s the playoffs, isn’t it?” said Tampa coach Jon Cooper. “It’s just the way — the beauties that you see in the regular season often times don’t show up in the playoffs and that’s just because of the attention to detail and playing defence. I think many times . . . the goals you’re going to see, is something like that.”
“I think there are no fluky goals come playoff time,” said Stamkos. “You put pucks on net, it’s the old cliché, but good things usually happen. Maybe we need to start doing some more of that.”
Well, at even strength the Rangers got 59 per cent of the shot attempts, which is a lot, though most of that margin came in the first period. No, they won when it was a coin-flip game, and they flipped the right coin. The Rangers have played 13 one-goal playoff games in 13 attempts, which is a record, because the Rangers are the NHL playoffs in blue shirts, or at least the East. Play it simple, skate hard, compete hard, muck it up, don’t score much, rely on your impossibly handsome goaltender. (Note: Last clause may not apply to every team.) This is what they do.
“They just play a solid game, nothing flashy,” said Stamkos, who registered one shot on goal, and one shot attempt at all, in 19:32 of ice time. “They just play smart, solid D, they’ve got forwards who play and make the simple plays. They get pucks in deep. I thought as the game progressed we got a little better managing the puck and playing a similar style to how they play.”
The Lightning were the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season. Of course, in the East the final four consisted of Montreal (2.08 goals per game in the post-season), Washington (2.00), the Rangers (2.00), and the Lightning, who were at 2.62 before Game 1.
This time of year the gaps vanish and the sticks and bodies turn into forests, and by the way Henrik Lundqvist is at the other end of the forest, handsomely guarding the gates. So Tampa, filled with skill, has to become a playoff team to beat a playoff team.
“Not a lot of scoring chances; odd-man rushes, not a lot of those,” said Stamkos. “Fewer power plays. So you have to find a way — you have to win those 2-1 games at this time of year ... I thought as the game went on we got a little better, but sometimes we just have to realize that we know we have so much speed and skill in this room, but if you look at Game 6 last round it’s about getting pucks in deep and then letting skill take over.”
“You know, I think at the end of the day this year they were first in offence and we were third, so we’re not that far behind,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “But I do think a lot of our offence comes from defending well. Good defence will lead to offence. Against such a skilled and powerhouse offensive team, I think we need to defend, and that’s what we did tonight.”
The record for playoff games won with two goals or less in one year was set by three teams, in 2000, 2002 and 2003, as the dead puck era scraped against the gravelly bottom of the pond. In the East, at least, we’re back.