Rangers shut out, lose 3-0 to Panthers in series opener

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, the New York Rangers trail in a series after dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final 3-0 to the Florida Panthers on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

Giving credit to where credit is due, the Panthers played a near-perfect road game, clamping down defensively from the opening puck drop, taking a first-period lead and riding Sergei Bobrovsky’s 23 saves to victory.

The Panthers have won five of six road games in the postseason and now have a four-game road winning streak. It was only the second shutout for Bobrovsky in 82 career games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe each had a goal and an assist to lead the Panthers. Sam Bennett had an empty-net goal, five shots and four hits.

“I think we can play better. I don’t think that was the best version of ourselves,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette.

Igor Shesterkin allowed two goals on 26 shots, including an own goal in the third period off Alexis Lafreniere, who, ironically, might have been New York’s most effective player offensively.

“We have better in us,” Mika Zibanejad said after the Rangers lost for the third time in their past four playoff games. That after beginning the postseason with seven consecutive wins.

Related: Alexis Lafreniere could be Rangers best weapon against Panthers

Florida Panthers 3 – New York Rangers 0

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Though the Panthers had an 18-12 shots advantage and the better of the play territorially, they only had a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard through two periods.

That lone goal belonged to Tkachuk, who scored his fifth of the postseason and first in six games at 16:26 of the first period. The goal came off the rush with Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling pushing the Rangers back into their own end before dropping a pass back to Tkachuk, who sent a quick wrist shot past the glove hand of Shesterkin.

A bit more than a minute later, the Rangers had their best scoring chance when Kaapo Kakko sent Braden Schneider off on a clear breakaway. Though Schneider’s forehand shot beat Bobrovsky, the puck hit the post and the score remained 1-0.

Prime scoring chances were few and far between for each team in the first 40 minutes. The Rangers best sustained pressure came at the start of the second period, when they opened with four shots in less than two minutes. Bobrovsky stopped one shot through traffic with his pads, then denied Will Cuylle after the Rangers rookie broke in behind the defense on a partial break. Vincent Trocheck cut to the net and redirected a neat Lafreniere pass on net that a perfectly positioned Bobrovsky shrugged away.

After that surge, the Panthers threw a defensive blanket over the Blueshirts and did not allow a shot for a span of 14:25. The Rangers drew their first power play at 18:34 of the second period and had one excellent scoring chance when Zibanejad whistled a one-timer toward a seemingly open short side of the net. But the puck hit Trocheck in front as Bobrovsky was diving across the crease and the horn sounded to end the period seconds later.

Laviolette tried to shake things up by changing New York’s line combinations, including moving Filip Chytil up from the third line for a few shifts and putting Artemi Panarin on a line with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider for stretches. Chytil, who didn’t play much in the third period, logged only 9:17 in ice time in his second game since missing six months with an upper-body injury believed to be a concussion.

Panarin finished minus-3 with three shots on goal and seven shot attempts in a whopping 24:37 of ice time.

Though the Panthers had the better of the play, it’s not as if they were piling up great scoring chances. Shesterkin did make a couple tough stops, including a glove deflection of an Aleksander Barkov backhander from the slot at 15:03 of the second.

The Panthers had the game’s first two power plays, but did little with either opportunity against the outstanding Rangers penalty kill.

Florida’s lead remained 1-0 early in the third because Shesterkin made two big stops on separate shifts against Verhaeghe. First, the Rangers goalie was in the right position to swallow a turnaround shot from the slot. And then Verhaeghe’s slap shot off the rush was kicked out by Shesterkin’s left pad minutes later.

A huge moment in the game took place at 8:45 of the third period. Florida’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson drilled a left-wing shot past Shesterkin but the Rangers successfully challenged the on-ice goal call because Ryan Lomberg was in the blue paint and made contact with the Rangers netminder.

It was a huge break for the Blueshirts and kept their deficit at one goal. They caught another break when Anton Lundell’s power-play deflection hit the crossbar minutes later. And after Lafreniere ripped a shot off the post at the other end, still another break when the Panthers were penalized for having too many men on the ice at 13:11.

Bobrovsky made two huge saves on the Rangers power play, first on Trocheck in tight and then on an Adam Fox bomb shortly after. And the Panthers had their second successful kill of the night.

“He’s been unbelievable all playoffs … when we need him, he comes up huge,” Verhaeghe said about Bobrovsky.

A massive bad break went against the Rangers, when a back-checking Lafreniere inadvertently deflected a Verhaeghe centering pass into his own net to make it 2-0 at 16:12 of the third period. The play started with Shesterkin coming far out of his net to play the puck, only to turn it over along the wall to Verhaeghe, who ended up with his seventh goal of the playoffs.

After Shesterkin was pulled for the extra attacker, Bobrovsky made a lightning-quick left-pad save on Zibanejad’s low blast with 2:45 to play. That ended up being New York’s last gasp because Bennett sent a shot from his side of the red line dead center into the empty net with 1:19 remaining. Bennett’s third goal iced the Game 1 road win for the Panthers, 3-0.

“Our whole entire game has to be better,” Kreider said.

Game 2 of this best-of-7 series takes place Friday night at The Garden.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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