TORONTO – Zero to 100 in under three minutes.
That’s how hard and fast meaningful hockey slammed the gas pedal Saturday afternoon, as the first hockey game of consequence rang in like Christmas morning after 144 Groundhog Days of sameness.
Carolina defenceman Brady Skjei lit up former teammate Jesper Fast, Jaccob Slavin foiled surprise Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist on the first shot of Return to Play, 38-year-old Justin Williams dropped the gloves with Ryan Strome, and, in a snap, hockey was back.
Full speed ahead.
“There was a lot of pent-up energy,” said Williams, speaking for us all.
The passes might not have been midseason crisp, and the penalties were too plentiful, but rest assured, the Carolina Hurricanes’ decisive 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 1 had all the bite and vile of the do-or-die competition you remember. Even if the only fans allowed inside Scotiabank Arena were the ones pre-recorded by EA Sports and played over the clatter of graphite sticks and well-rested bodies.
“It was definitely a physical and emotional game, even without the crowd. These guys were into it,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You could definitely feel it out there.
The Hurricanes, who had failed to defeat the Blueshirts in four attempts during the regular season, came out ablaze, controlling play and confining New York to its own zone.
Skjei’s open-ice hit of Fast — who never returned to the game — set a tone that was never overturned for long.
And it was Fast’s man, Slavin, who slipped back door for the opening strike, taking advantage of a banged-up opponent.
“It has an emotional effect on your team,” Rangers coach David Quinn said of Fast’s early injury. “Not only do we lose our best player, a goal was scored because of it.”
A sweet tip by Sebastian Aho off an Andrei Svechnikov slap-pass increased the Canes’ lead to 2-0 in the second period.
“He’s an elite player,” Brind’Amour said of Aho, “and I think he wants his time.”
The Rangers’ top centre, Mika Zibanejad, brought the score to 2-1 with a power-play tip of his own, and New York gave themselves a shot heading into the final 20 minutes.
But when the officials generously dish out 21 minutes’ worth of penalties to each side, finding your 5-on-5 rhythm becomes an exercise in futility.
“I thought we battled; it just wasn’t enough,” said Quinn. “They set the pace and the tempo, and I thought it took us too long to respond to it…. We were too perimeter.”
Quinn believes Carolina drew inspiration from the lopsided season series.
“You lose to a team four times, you’re gonna be pissed off,” Quinn said. “Everybody’s pissed off to start a series, but they heightened theirs.”
Added Zibanejad: “I felt like they out-competed us, really.”
The Canes out-shot New York 37-26 and out-chanced the visitors 33-20.
A third period shorthanded goal by Carolina’s Martin Necas proved to be the winner, and Brind’Amour admitted post-game he wasn’t certain Necas would be healthy enough to dress.
“Another one of these young kids who has a lot of talent,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got that ability to be a difference-maker.”
Rangers defenceman Marc Staal tallied a late shorthanded marker of his own.
(Fun fact: In arena, they blast the respective goal song for both teams, home and away, after the lamp gets lit.)
Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, the planned starter, was deemed “unfit to play” Friday night but was spotted watching the action inside the arena. His status for Game 2 remains unknown.
Lundqvist, operating in the busy end of the rink, said he felt he was moving well in the crease and was mentally prepared despite the unexpected call to action.
“I approached this camp to be ready for anything,” the veteran goalie said.
Will Lundqvist get the call for Monday’s Game 2, though?
“We’ll see,” he said.