To say that Madison Square Garden was buzzing Thursday night during the Rangers’ 4-2, playoff-opening win over the Ottawa Senators would be an enormous and egregious understatement.
It was an absolute madhouse.
More than an hour before the puck even dropped, the concourses were packed with devoted New York fans as a small, nearly invisible contingent of Senators supporters noiselessly crept among the unruly masses.
And by the time the teams hit the ice, the sound in the building had morphed into a deafening, inharmonious racket — a commotion so loud that you couldn’t even hear legendary Garden fixture John Amirante as he belted out the Canadian and American national anthems.
With every bone-crunching check and each Rangers goal — one each from Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brian Boyle and Brad Richards — the fans erupted into a frenzy. And as the game dragged on, each renowned, if off-color, “Potvin sucks” chant rang louder and more emphatic than the last.
By the same token, each Rangers near-miss and Senators goal felt devastating in an end-of-the-world kind of way, the energy deflating out of the Garden like one of the hundreds of red, white and blue balloons dropped from the 400 level to the sections below during the national anthem.
But amid all of the insanity and emotion of the night, it was the one calming influence in the building, that of head coach John Tortorella — hardly a tranquil man — that helped propel New York to the victory.
And it was the Rangers’ ability to battle through the turbulence of the second period that allowed them to secure a 1-0 lead in their series against a dangerous Ottawa team that they never expected they’d face in the first round.
“Going into the first game you’re pretty excited, but it’s important that you try to not go out there too excited,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who had 30 saves in the win.
“You need to make good decisions, and I think we started the game pretty good. We had a stretch in the second where they kept coming pretty hard and we didn’t get hurt.”
New York first got on the board with 7:59 left in the first period when Callahan slipped a shot past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson’s left side, firing the puck in between his left pad and the pipe. But for the next eight minutes and the first 10 minutes of the second, the Rangers looked out of sync and struggled to keep possession of the puck as the Senators peppered Lundqvist.
A number of calls — and non-calls — had enraged an already volatile group of Rangers fans, and that frustration, despite having the slim lead seemed to be rubbing off on the Rangers themselves. So with 10:09 left in the second, after the sixth icing violation of the period, Tortorella called a timeout to rally his troops, despite knowing that a TV time out would be coming on the next stoppage in play.
“We had to get everybody together and realize we needed to grab the momentum back and go back to what we were doing in the first place,” Callahan said. “I thought the time out did that. It calmed us down and it got us back to work.”
The words of wisdom Tortorella imparted on his players during the brief chat revived the Rangers, who found a second wind and finished the period as well as they started the game.
With 3:36 left in the frame, Gaborik, the Rangers’ points leader in the regular season, interrupted a “these refs suck” chant — no one said the time out calmed down the fans — with a goal to give the Blueshirts a 2-0 lead. Then Boyle’s goal with 53 seconds left in the period blew the roof off the Garden.
“Torts obviously knows what he’s doing, so for us it calmed us down a little bit and we got back to what we needed to do,” Boyle said.
“There’s going to be ups and downs in the series and we’ve got to be able to handle it. We knew that as well, but it was just a reminder and we had a good response to it.”
Tortorella himself, however, didn’t put as much weight on his decision to regroup midway through the period.
“I’m not sure a timeout has anything to do with it,” Tortorella said of the win. “It’s just a matter of trying to settle yourself down and not keep giving it back to them. I thought that’s what we were doing, just slapping it around.”
Richards added his 22nd career playoff goal just 2:15 into the final period, and from then on the Rangers held on as the Senators tried to make a game of it.
“It’s probably what got us the game, was surviving the first 10 minutes of that second period without getting hurt,” Richards said. “To get the second and third (goal), that got our feet underneath us … got us going, and we took a deep breath and started playing our hockey.”
These are exciting times in Manhattan, and you couldn’t help but hearken back to the Rangers’ Stanley Cup run in 1994.
But if New York learned anything Thursday, it’s that staying focused and finding the calm amid the undying storm around them that will lead them back to playoff success.
“It’s going to happen; you’re not going to play a perfect game” Tortorella said.
“A huge part of playoff hockey is momentum swings. I hope we learned our lesson early on in this series. We settled ourselves down, we didn’t get hurt, our goaltender was really good at that time, and we found a way.”