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.
The passes might not have been mid-season crisp, and the penalties were too plentiful, but rest assured, the Carolina Hurricanes’ convincing 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 1 had all the bite and vile of the do-or-die hockey you remember. Even if the only fans allowed inside Scotiabank Arena were the one pre-recorded by EA Sports and played over the clatter of graphite sticks and well-rested bodies.
The Hurricanes, who had failed to defeat the Blueshirts in 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.
A sweet tip by Sebastian Aho increased the Canes’ lead to 2-0 in the second period.
The Rangers’ top centre, Mika Zibanejad, narrowed the score to 2-1 with a power-play tip of his own.
A third-period shorthanded goal by Carolina’s Martin Necas proved to be the winner, as New York defenceman Marc Staal tallied a late shorthanded goal of his own.
Worth noting: Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin was deemed “unfit to play” Saturday but was spotted watching the action inside the arena.
Game 2 of the best-of-five series goes Monday at 12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT.
New York is already hurting and on its heels.