NEW YORK — Of all the connective threads that link these Rangers and Lightning together—Martin St. Louis, Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, Dan Boyle, Brian Boyle—center Dominic Moore might be the forgotten piece. In 10 NHL seasons, Moore has mostly just looked for a steady place to play. Jumping from team to team, he has played for nine different clubs since 2006; Tampa Bay happened to be one of them. Still, after New York, where Moore has played 242 games in two different stints, the only other city the 34-year-old could have reasonably called home was Tampa Bay, where he played from 2010 to 2012.
A hard-nosed defensive-minded pivot, he did not come to the Rangers in a demanded trade or because of a contract dispute. He did not come with fanfare or a cap-busting contract. But nonetheless, Moore had made all the difference in this opening game of the Eastern Conference final. A puck off his shin as he charged the net late in a tied game gave New York the ever-so-familiar 2-1 win Saturday afternoon. In a game that featured two fast and skilled teams, trading hold-your-breath chances all day, it came down to a fortuitous bounce off a player known more for his hard work than his soft hands.
“He’s a guy that can really grind it out and be tough to play against,” Rangers winger Martin St. Louis said. “I’ve had a chance to play with him in Tampa in the playoffs. He was a key contributor then, he was a key contributor last year, and now again, this year. This is the kind of play we need from everybody.”
Moore, who averaged fewer than 14 minutes per game during the regular season and started the playoffs logging nominal fourth-line minutes, has turned into one of the Rangers’ workhorses as they move deeper toward their ultimate goal. In New York’s Game 7 win over Washington on Wednesday, he skated 20:16, just 38 fewer seconds than Rick Nash. And then again Saturday, as New York tried to neutralize a deep and threatening Tampa Bay attack, Moore logged 17:13, third most among Rangers forwards. In addition to scoring the goal, he played an important role in keeping the Lightning relatively quiet offensively.
For just the fourth time this postseason, Tampa Bay was held to one or fewer goals Saturday. But its lone goal, a pretty power play score to tie the game at 6:45 in the third period, was a prime example of just how opportunistic and lethal the Lightning's offense can be. With Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh in the box for high-sticking, Tampa’s vaunted man advantage went to work, connecting on a series of pinpoint passes that were punctuated with a beautiful one-timer off the stick of Ondrej Palat.
“We talked about it before the start of the series that [the power play] was going to be a big part of their game, and they hurt us on it,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “[The seam pass] is something they really like to do, and we weren’t able to get a stick on it. They don’t need a lot of time or room to make a play.”
With two skilled offensive lines—the top led by sniper Steven Stamkos and the second, a group nicknamed The Triplets (Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Palat)—Tampa Bay presents a pick-your-poison match-up for New York. But at this point, the Rangers know they are well-positioned to shut down waves of attack, leaning heavily on McDonagh, Staal and Dan Girardi. New York was able to limit the quality five-on-five chances of those top offensive threats. While Tampa Bay’s top six forwards combined for 15 shots on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, only six of those were within 30 feet of the Rangers’ net.
“Our back pressure was amazing,” Staal said, tipping his cap to the five-man defensive effort of his team. “That makes it a lot easier.”
The speed with which both teams play gave the first 40 minutes a pace that neither team has really had the luxury of experiencing this postseason. Both teams like to play fast in transition, try to stretch the other team on the ice whenever possible. And though the game seemed to buckle in as it went along, the end-to-end chances offered a window into what the series may hold.