On Wednesday night, lightning flashed near Madison Square Garden, and rain fell on downtown Manhattan. Inside the arena, Rangers fans roared, the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning broke, and Tampa Bay fell in a shocking first game of the NHL Eastern Conference Finals.
In their first Stanley Cup third-round playoff run in seven years, the Rangers defeated the two-time defending champions to win 6-2, winning Game 1 in front of 18,006 sold-out fans. their delight from the beginning of the game to its end.
By the middle of the third period, fans were so ahead of their team that they were chanting “Igor is better,” referring to Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin and his duel with his Russian counterpart Andrey Vasilevsky, Tampa Bay’s usually excellent forward.
“They definitely gave us a lot of energy,” said center Mika Zibanejad, one of the Rangers’ five scorers.
Shesterkin made 37 saves, with Filip Chitil scoring two goals, while Chris Kreider, Frank Vatrano, Artemi Panarin and Zibanejad also scored, all of which drew huge applause from Sade.
Almost everything worked out for the Rangers, and the Lightning, who are aiming to become the first team to win a third straight Stanley Cup since the Islanders did in 1982, were looking to regroup before Friday’s Game 2.
“There are areas we can improve,” said Steven Stamkos, captain of the Lightning, “and we will improve.”
The Rangers had won the previous two series to qualify for this playoff stage, but on Wednesday they took the series lead to a decisive win for the first time this year, and it came against the favorite.
But ignore the odds. The Rangers are arguably the most dangerous group left in the playoffs and by far the most exciting team in New York right now.
Hours before the puck dropped to open the series, fans in blue, white and red Rangers jerseys poured into Seventh and Eighth Avenues and the Garden for their team’s first Final Conference game since 2015, when they also played “Lightning”.
The garden has already been the setting for several resounding, high-energy games in these playoffs, including the Rangers’ wins in Game 7 of the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Game 6 of the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes.
On Wednesday, the building was pulsing again, perhaps not as much as in Game 7 against the Penguins, but with noticeable intensity, reflecting the later round of the playoffs where the stakes are higher. The decibel levels soared as the Rangers scored first on Kreider’s goal just one minute and 11 seconds into the game.
“It’s always nice to get support from the fans here,” said Vatrano, who was traded to New York from the Florida Panthers in March. “They were amazing. For me coming here, this is one of the best buildings to play in the NHL that I know coming here on the road, it’s not just a building to play.”
Excitement grew during the first two periods as the Rangers took a 4-2 lead, possibly taking advantage of the Lightning’s long break between games by pelting Vasilevskiy with pucks. Four goals in only the first two periods is one goal more than Vasilevsky conceded in the Lightning’s four-game match against Florida, which ended on May 23. recognized that this is a factor.
“Apparently they were a bit rusty tonight,” he said. “With nine days off, they were no longer the same. It matters.”
And the Rangers took advantage of that. Every goal brought deafening cheers and yells, causing the media bridge on the top level of the Garden to sway slightly with noise as supporters waved towels and exchanged hugs.
“It keeps evolving,” said Elizabeth Famiglietti, a high school teacher from East Northport, Long Island who wore the Ryan Reaves No. 75 jersey. “In the last two rounds, it was very clear that the players were really reacting to the fans and the applause, so we have to bring this up again.”
Celebrities such as Yankees baseman Anthony Rizzo, who made it to the game after the rain, rapper Fat Joe, Giants linebacker Blake Martinez, Giants coach Brian Daball, who was a regular with the Garden during this round of play -off, and Noah. Schnapp, the Stranger Things actor, joined in the celebration and was shown on a giant video screen above the ice.
For one member of the Lightning, facing the Rangers in a playoff at the Garden was a little odd in itself. Ross Colton, a Lightning sophomore center, grew up in the Central Jersey town of Robbinsville and was an avid Devils fan. He recalled going to every home playoff game in 2012 when the Devils defeated the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to a Game 6 overtime goal from Adam Enrique.
Ten years later, he was on the ice in the middle of it all.
“I’ve always despised the Rangers,” he said before the game. “It feels like yesterday I took the train to see the Devils and Rangers. It’s kind of crazy to go to MSG and play.”
As the fans entered the arena, they took their seats and found wristbands with alternating red, white, and blue lights that made the interior of the arena glimmer like a Rangers-themed Christmas tree. But they didn’t need any financial incentive to cheer loudly for their team other than to see their players on the ice score goals and complete checks.
But Rangers fans were also acutely aware of the difficulties their team faced, regardless of the outcome of the first game. Ronald Dichek and Sam Dichek, brothers from Brooklyn, attended playoff games against the Penguins and Hurricanes.
“Tampa Bay is a real challenge,” said Sam Dichek.
But junior rangers are energetic, skillful and adventurous. And as the playoffs go on, they have gained the confidence and belief that they can beat any opponent and turn the thunder and lightning outside the building into an impending storm inside it.
“I’m telling our guys, look at some of the best arenas and conditions you’ve ever played in, it’s number one on the list,” Tampa Bay coach John Cooper said. “You have to enjoy playing in front of these fans because they are passionate, they love their team and it’s fun to be part of it.”