By Larry Brooks
April 14, 2016
Penguins' Patric Hornqvist slips the puck past Lundqvist for the first of his three goals. (Gene Puskar/AP)
PITTSBURGH — Sometimes — most of the time, really — Game 1 is just one game of a best-of-seven with minimal enduring consequence.
But not this Game 1 of Rangers-Penguins, on Wednesday night. And not this Period 1 of Round 1.
Because in this period, the Rangers not only failed to take advantage of the fact the Penguins were forced to start third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff in the wake of head injuries to Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, but also the Blueshirts lost Henrik Lundqvist to a right-eye injury.
And, poof, just like that, the singular advantage the Blueshirts brought into this series had evaporated into the night that ended in a 5-2 defeat in their worst Game 1 performance of any playoff series since facing Buffalo in the second round in 2007.
The injury to Lundqvist, sustained when Marc Staal’s stick blade somehow snaked through an opening in the King’s mask and caught the goaltender around the right eye with 48.2 seconds remaining in the first period, is not believed to be serious, though it is unknown whether he will be fit for Game 2 duty when the series resumes Saturday afternoon.
But even if there is no lasting damage to Lundqvist, the cause was surely damaged by the Rangers’ failure to inflict hockey damage on Zatkoff, a 28-year-old journeyman who began the night having played 200 games in the AHL and 35 in the NHL.
“We saw Fleury wasn’t there during warm-up and that’s when we knew Zatkoff would play,” Derick Brassard said. “We wanted to get as many shots on him as possible, but anyone who’s in this league is good enough to play.
“He was their backup goalie all year. It’s not like it was some guy up from the minors who never played before. We had respect for him, and I thought we did some good things, but we made too many mistakes.”
Two years ago, the Rangers found the way to beat Dustin Tokarski after the young minor leaguer replaced Carey Price in the Montreal nets after the Canadiens’ No. 1 suffered a knee injury in a collision with Chris Kreider that you may have heard something about.
When Patric Hornqvist slipped one by Lundqvist from the slot with 17.6 seconds remaining in the first period — under other circumstances, it might be described as a seeing-eye shot — the Rangers somehow were losing 1-0 to a third-stringer. When Lundqvist was unable to go at the start of the second period, the Blueshirts’ perceived singular edge entering the series had evaporated.
After 20 minutes.
There were too many blunders, most notably ghastly coverage on what became a 2-on-1 Tom Kuhnhackl short-handed goal that gave the Penguins a 3-1 lead at 5:31 of the third only 2:21 after Derek Stepan’s 5-on-3 power-play goal brought the Rangers within one goal in a game that never really seemed close no matter the score.
“At the end of the day, we have two minutes left on a power play after we score and we do that,” said Brassard, who had a quiet evening. “That cannot happen in the playoffs.”
Sidney Crosby scored a breakaway goal after Dan Girardi — who had a very tough night — had a shot blocked and the Rangers were trapped on a stretch pass. Hornqvist, Crosby’s linemate, wound up with a hat trick, the final goal sent into an empty net.
“Regardless of their goaltender, what stings is that we talked about doing the job against their top line and we didn’t get it done,” said Stepan, who had the matchup assignment with wingers Rick Nash and Chris Kreider against Crosby’s unit. “You can’t allow five goals and expect to win a playoff game.”
True, but when you’re the Rangers and it’s Lundqvist against Zatkoff, you most certainly do expect to win a playoff game. But the Blueshirts didn’t create nearly enough quality chances and didn’t create the kind of pressure under which the goaltender might have buckled.
You can hear Jerry Seinfeld now spitting out the name as if it were an epithet: “Zatkoff!”
The Rangers move on, with or without Lundqvist for the immediate future. They move on after a Game 1 that sure seems more meaningful than just one game.