NEW YORK -- In a game devoid of high-quality scoring chances, one that lacked precision and execution on offense and was overflowing with tight checking in all three zones, it only makes sense that a penalty kill played a big factor in its outcome.
Twenty-year-old Chris Kreider was the hero Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden with a goal and an assist in the third period during the Rangers' 3-1 win in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Washington Capitals, but it was New York's patience and ability to kill a two-man advantage that set the stage for the rookie.
Through two periods, the game was tied at 1-1 with the Caps holding a 13-8 advantage in shots. Both teams were coming off seven-game-series victories in the conference quarterfinals that were earned on the strength of defense, and neither could generate anything offensively through 40 minutes.
The first spark of the scoreless contest came midway through the second period when the Caps were awarded a 34-second, 5-on-3 power play. Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko, owner of two Stanley Cup rings, blocked a one-timer by Alex Ovechkin and deflected another pass through the triangle defense to short circuit the opportunity and bring the sell-out crowd to its feet with every clearing of the zone.
Less than three minutes after both penalties expired, Artem Anisimov put the Rangers ahead 1-0 with a wraparound goal that slipped through Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby.
"It was a huge kill," said Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who was one of the two Rangers in the penalty box at the time. "5-on-3s are toughs. Feds makes a couple big blocks, (Henrik Lundqvist) made some saves and we got it killed off. That got the crowd into it and got them behind us and got us going. It brought some emotion to our bench."
Fedotenko found himself in that situation partly because penalty-killing forwards Brian Boyle (concussion) and Brandon Dubinsky (lower body) were out of the lineup with injuries and Brandon Prust was in the penalty box. Fedotenko's main assignment on the kill, which he accomplished beautifully, was to prevent Ovechkin from unleashing his deadly shot.
"We were just trying to keep it as tight possible, the triangle there, don’t overextend and be in the shooting lanes," Fedotenko said. "He has to have it blocked or miss the net. That’s our goal. It ended up we were successful this time, so we were happy about that."
The Rangers appeared set to take that one-goal lead into the second intermission, but the Capitals tied it with 3.5 seconds remaining when Jason Chimera tapped home a perfect saucer pass from Brooks Laich. It was a rare defensive breakdown for the Rangers, who instead of getting rattled by the late goal, continued to show patience at the start of the third period.
Kreider's game-winning goal -- his second winner in six postseason games -- came at the seven-minute mark of the final period and was just the Rangers' 12th shot of the contest. Brad Richards gave the Rangers some breathing room 90 seconds later when he beat Holtby between the pads after taking a pass from Kreider to make it 3-1.
The Rangers had 14 shots in the game, four fewer than the Capitals, and were never willing to open up the offense or take chances in order to generate a goal.
"When you look at the end of the game, the shots are low but we thought we held onto pucks and grinded them," Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We got our forechecking going for the majority of the game and that's what we talked about -- it's going to be a game of patience. When you get that opportunity, capitalize on it. When you get a little bit of ice like Kreids did there, you bear down and put it in the back of the net. That needs to continue for us."
"In games like these, you have to be patient," Staal said. "I think our guys are pretty good at waiting for their opportunities, and that's what we did. We didn't open ourselves up and we waited to get opportunities to score. When we did, we buried them."
Kreider's goal came seemingly out of nowhere. A rare Capitals breakdown in the neutral zone allowed Kreider to skate across the blue line unfettered and launch a slap shot that beat Holtby to the glove side. The goal resulted in the crowd chanting his name for about 30 seconds, something that blew Kreider away.
"It was a surreal experience. I got goose bumps," Kreider said. "I was really tired after that goal, but didn't feel so tired when they started chanting."
For the third straight game, the Rangers didn't sit on a one-goal lead for very long. In two of their losses to the Ottawa Senators in the previous round, the Rangers were unable to get a third goal and allowed the Senators to rally for victories.
The Rangers held the Capitals at bay over the final 10 minutes of the period by staying in attack mode with a lead, another lesson learned from the series with Ottawa.
"It's human nature to sometimes step back," Richards said. "We got that big goal and got the crowd into it, and then we went out and followed that up. That's part of the momentum swings we talk about. Instead of maybe getting one, you maybe get two or three in that five, 10 minutes where you get momentum. It ended up good where we followed it up with another big goal and a two-goal lead with Hank in net. It's a lot better."
Lundqvist made just 17 saves and has allowed 13 goals in eight postseason games. He lamented allowing Chimera's goal in the waning moments of the second period and spent the entire intermission getting refocused on the final 20 minutes.
"It was tough to come in here after two, your brain starts going a little, 'I should have stopped that,'" Lundqvist said. "The important thing is we went out in the third and took charge and didn't sit back and wait for something to happen. We went out there and played our game, and made some really big plays there."
Holtby put the blame on himself for not staying sharp in a game where he could've taken some lengthy naps with the Rangers unable to muster many shots.
"It's a tough game to stay into it, mentally wise," Holtby said, "and I didn't do a good enough job of it."
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is set for Monday night at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). If both teams are playing it close to the vest again, the Rangers don't mind it one bit.
"It's going to be a grind and we're just going to play our game," Tortorella said. "We're not changing anything as far as how we go about our business."