Outside Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, lightning cracked and rain fell on Midtown Manhattan. Inside the arena, Rangers fans roared, the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning cracked, and Tampa Bay fell in a shocking first game of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals.
In the Rangers’ first foray into the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in seven years, they pounded the two-time defending champions and won, 6-2, to capture Game 1 in front of a sold-out crowd of 18,006 that thundered their delight from before the game started until after it ended.
By the midpoint of the third period, the fans were so comfortable in their team’s lead that they chanted, “Igor’s better,” a reference to Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin and his duel with his Russian counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s normally superb netminder.
“They definitely gave us a lot of energy,” said center Mika Zibanejad, one of five Ranger goal scorers.
Shesterkin made 37 saves and Filip Chytil scored two goals, while Chris Kreider, Frank Vatrano, Artemi Panarin and Zibanejad also scored, each one igniting the Garden into thunderous applause.
Virtually everything went the Rangers’ way, and the Lightning, who are seeking to become the first team to win a third straight Stanley Cup since the Islanders did it in 1982, were left hoping to regroup before Friday’s Game 2.
“There are areas we can improve,” said Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain, “and we will improve.”
The Rangers had won two previous series to get to this stage of the playoffs, but Wednesday marked the first time this year that they had taken a lead in a series before the clinching win, and it came against the favored team.
But never mind the odds. The Rangers may be the most dangerous group left in the playoffs, and are certainly the most exciting team in New York at the moment.
Hours before the puck dropped to open the series, fans in blue, white and red Rangers jerseys flooded down Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and into the Garden for their team’s first conference finals game since 2015, when they also played the Lightning.
The Garden had already been the setting for several deafening, high-energy matchups in these playoffs, including the Rangers’ victories in a first-round Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and a second-round Game 6 against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The building was pulsating again on Wednesday, perhaps not as much as Game 7 against the Penguins, but with a intensity reflecting the later round of the playoffs, where the stakes are higher. The decibel level soared when the Rangers scored first, on a goal from Kreider just one minute, 11 seconds into the game.
“It’s always great getting a boost from the fans here,” said Vatrano, who was traded to New York in March from the Florida Panthers. “They’ve been awesome. For me, coming here, it’s one of the best buildings to play in in the NHL I know coming in here on the road, it’s not an easy building to play in.”
The excitement grew through the first two periods as the Rangers built a 4-2 lead, perhaps taking advantage of the Lightning’s long layoff between games, by throwing pucks at Vasilevskiy. The four goals in the first two periods alone amounted to one more than Vasilevskiy had allowed in the Lightning’s four-game sweep against Florida that ended May 23. The Lightning dismissed the eight days off as an excuse for poor play, but Rangers Coach Gerard Gallant acknowledged it was a factor.
“Obviously, they were a little bit rusty tonight,” he said. “With nine days off they weren’t the same. It makes a difference.”
And the Rangers took advantage. Each goal brought deafening shouts and hollers, forcing the media bridge at the top level of the Garden to gently sway with the din as fans waved towels and shared hugs.
“It continues to build,” said Elizabeth Famiglietti, a middle school teacher from East Northport, Long Island, who wore a Ryan Reaves No. 75 jersey. “It was pretty clear in the last two rounds that the players really responded to the fans and the cheering, so we have to bring it again.”
Celebrities, like Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who made his way to the game after a rain out, the rapper Fat Joe, Giants linebacker Blake Martinez, Giants Coach Brian Daboll, who has been a fixture at the Garden during this playoff run, and Noah Schnapp, the actor featured in the series “Stranger Things,” joined in the festivities and were featured on the giant video screen above the ice.
For one member of the Lightning, facing the Rangers in the playoffs at the Garden was a bit strange in itself. Ross Colton, the Lightning’s second-year center, grew up in Robbinsville Township in Central Jersey as an avid fan of the Devils. He recalled going to every home game in the 2012 playoffs, when the Devils beat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals on Adam Henrique’s goal in overtime of Game 6.
A decade later, he was on the ice in the middle of it all.
“I always had some disdain for the Rangers,” he said before the game. “It feels like yesterday I was taking the train in to watch the Devils and Rangers. It’s kind of crazy to go out at MSG and play.”
As fans entered the arena, they arrived in their seats to find wrist bands with alternating red, white and blue lights, which made the inside of the arena flicker like a Ranger-themed Christmas tree. But they needed no material inducements to cheer thunderously for their team, other than seeing their players on the ice score goals and finish checks.
But Ranger fans were also acutely aware of the challenge facing their team, regardless of the outcome of Game 1. Ronald Ditchek and Sam Ditchek, brothers from Brooklyn, had attended playoffs games against the Penguins and the Hurricanes.
“Tampa Bay is the real test,” Sam Ditchek said.
But the younger Rangers are energetic, skillful and opportunistic. And, as the playoffs continue, they’ve gained the confidence and belief that they can beat any opponent, and turn the thunder and lightning on the outside the building into a gathering storm inside it , too.
“I tell our guys, you look around at some of the greatest arenas and environments to ever play in, this is top of the list,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said. “You should enjoy playing in front of those fans because they are passionate, they love their team, and it’s fun to be a part of.”