By Steve Silverman
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There’s a funny thing about the NHL playoffs. It’s pretty well-known that the first couple of rounds are often a crap shoot with the No. 7 and 8 seeds often doing as well or better than the top-seeded teams. (See this year’s Los Angeles Kings.)

But once you get to the final two rounds, the better teams usually figure out a way to get it done, even when they are outplayed for most of the games.

That’s what happened in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals as the Rangers escaped with a 3-0 victory over the Devils. The Rangers were held in check for two periods and it was clear that New Jersey’s forechecking game had given them the better of the play for the majority of the first 40 minutes. But the scoreboard said there was nothing to worry about. Henrik Lundqvist was between the pipes for the Rangers and even though his team was not at its best, he did not let anything get by him.

Lundqvist is not only the best goalie in the league, he is one of the Rangers’ leaders. If a team is going to win the Stanley Cup, the leaders must become the best players. Brad Richards stepped up in Game 7 against Washington and Lundqvist stepped up in Game 1 against the Devils.

The Devils had their cycle game going and were frustrating the Rangers for two periods. They did a solid job of keeping the Rangers from breaking out of their own zone and there was little speed through the neutral zone. As a result, the Rangers’ offense was not very threatening to Martin Brodeur. The Devils had their best chances when they were shorthanded, and it was Zach Parise who nearly broke though in the latter portion of the second period when he had three great chances that Lundqvist swallowed up.

Rookie Adam Henrique retrieved the puck behind the goalline and put a soft pass on Parise’s stick between the circles. Parise fired a wrister than Lundqvist blocked and then stopped two quick rebound attempts. While the Devils did not fall apart after that sequence, the Rangers stepped up. They knew they had survived a key moment in the game.

When the second period ended with a scoreless tie still intact, they were feeling good about themselves. “We went into the lockerroom and we knew we hadn’t played our best but we were still tied,” Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi told the NBC Sports Network. “We knew it was still there for us to take.”

That happened early in the third period when the Rangers took advantage of a rare defensive miscue by New Jersey. Rookie Chris Kreider got control of the puck along the boards and noticed Girardi streaking in from the neutral zone. He feathered a slow pass to the right point that Girardi was allowed to step into without impediment and fire at top speed. There were no Devil forwards near Girardi as he let it go and the puck zipped into the far corner of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 53-second mark.

The Garden crowd roared its approval and those cheers got even louder when Lundqvist stopped a blast from Ilya Kovalchuk moments later. Kovalchuk received a pass in the left faceoff circle and fired a rocket that Lundqvist stopped without issue.

Kreider added a power play goal at the 12-minute mark when he took a perfect backhand pass from Artem Anisimov while moving at full speed. Kreider snapped the puck off his stick with a shot reminiscent of former Ranger great Jean Ratelle. The puck blew by Brodeur before he had a chance to fully react.

The Rangers remembered how that a two-goal lead lasted only seconds against Washington in Game 7 and they were determined not to give the Devils any life. The defense, which blocked 26 shots against New Jersey, refused to give in and they kept a goose egg up on the Devils’ side of the scoreboard.

An empty netter by Anisimov put the game away and gave New York first blood in the series.

The Devils may be cursing their fate and may think they deserved better. But they have to contend with Lundqvist, Richards, Girardi and a defensive maniac like Ryan McDonagh. They are players who step up at the biggest moments.

The Devils have to show that their best players will also do the same. In Game 1, they did not do that.

Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).

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