It was an emotional night at MSG. New coach David Quinn finally got a taste of what the NHL is all about. Even though his team didn’t win, they gave a good effort in a tough 3-2 home loss to Nashville in the season opener.
Better days are ahead for the new look Rangers. They can learn from their mistakes, which were too many in Quinn’s estimation. They gave up more breakaways than in preseason against one of the league’s best. The Predators are very good and will be hungry all year. They were a good test for this early.
First and foremost, following the always over the top team introduction, MSG paid tribute to Garden icon John Amirante. In a touching gesture, they introduced his entire family onto the ice including his wife and grandchildren. Amirante was the team’s national anthem singer for nearly four decades. He was a part of the organization. Like a family member who’s beloved. When they did the right thing showing one of his beautiful renditions of the anthem on the video board, along with photos of all the Rangers through the years he performed for, it really got to me. In speaking with my father and brother, who attended the game with our friend, they echoed my sentiments.
When you get chills and almost lose it, reduced to tears as I was watching it on TV, it says a lot about what Amirante meant to the fans. I’ll never forget him or that poignant moment he belted out the powerful words to the Star Spangled Banner before Game 7 in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver. The same feeling I had 20 years later in our section prior to Game 6 of the Conference Final versus Montreal, and Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against Los Angeles.
I guess it’s easy to get emotional thinking about how many great memories Amirante gave us. I’m so glad the Rangers did it the right way. That’s how it had to be on Thursday night. I hope they do more nights like it with Johnny on the big board. The way the Yankees still do it with Robert Merrill.
The game was surprisingly good. Facing the Predators in your opener when you’re in a rebuild with not much pressure is not an easy task. Just compare what they have up front and especially on defense. It’s scary. They won the President’s Trophy last season. The big four of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are all back. No Ranger blueliner remotely compares to that fearsome quartet. The same way none of our forwards are on the level of goal scorer Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson.
At this point, Pekka Rinne has more left than Henrik Lundqvist, who had to contend with several breakdowns that allowed dangerous scoring chances. He was awfully good in turning away open Predators. I hope he’s not under siege all season, or it’ll be a long year. He was spectacular in finishing with 30 saves, including some sparklers that ignited the crowd. The glove save on Craig Smith on a Nashville power play was letter perfect. Rinne made some big saves too, stopping 34 of 36 shots to earn the win. He was under pressure late, but got the job done. His best work came in crunch time when he got a pad across to stone Mats Zuccarello, and was forced into one more difficult save before the buzzer on a long Kevin Shattenkirk offering with Zuccarello and goal scorer Jesper Fast parked in front. That’s all you can ask for down one at the end.
It’s a credit to how hard the Blueshirts played. Sure. They made their share of mistakes. That’s gonna happen. The key will be to correct them as Quinn alluded to in the postgame. He felt they could’ve been more aggressive throughout, but noted that they got better as the game went on. Something positive to build on for Saturday at Buffalo.
Goaltending was the story in the first period. Both Lundqvist and Rinne were sharp from the outset. While Rinne had to make key stops on the cohesive second unit of Kevin Hayes, Zuccarello and Jimmy Vesey, who played perhaps his finest game as a Ranger, Lundqvist had to deal with clean breakaways on point-blank chances. He showed poise making tremendous saves, which earned the familiar, “Hen-rik! Hen-rik,” chants.
Early in the second, Forsberg got loose and sniped a laser past Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead. On the play, defenseman Neal Pionk got caught pinching, leading to a quick Nashville transition. Forsberg took advantage of fourth liner Vinni Lettieri, who tried to cover for Pionk. On a confusing switch, Forsberg got too much room and rifled home his first of the season from Kyle Turris and Smith at 3:54.
The Preds were leading in shots 22-15 due to their aggressiveness in the neutral zone. Their D makes it tough on opponents. They are great at keeping pucks in. But the Rangers didn’t break. They picked up the intensity. Some of which was on display during scrums. Subban was challenged a couple of times following a big hit on Vladislav Namestnikov in the first. Marc Staal went at him and so did Brendan Smith, who was oddly paired with Kevin Shattenkirk throughout. I don’t see that tandem lasting long. Shattenkirk still struggles in his end, and Smith isn’t the fastest skater.
On a night the top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich were kept in check by a stingy Nashville defense, it was the play of the Hayes line that stood out. The trio of Hayes, Zuccarello and Vesey combined for nine shots and 11 attempts. In particular, Vesey had the best chances, narrowly missing on a breakaway off a great Zuccarello feed. Rinne got a piece of it. Vesey was also set up earlier on a neat passing play with Rinne shutting down his backhand stuff try in tight. He also nearly set up Zuccarello, and was denied again on a Buchnevich pass.
For most of the first part of the game, Filip Chytil’s line had been quiet. But on a night where Fast was introduced as one of five alternate captains, some hustle by the player’s player paid off during a good shift. He kept a play alive in the corner, passing down low to Chytil behind the net. With two checkers on him, the promising 19-year old made a nice backhand pass in front for an easy Fast one-timer in front for his first goal. How many people had Jesper in the pool for first Rangers goal? I took Buchnevich on the power play from Shattenkirk and Zibanejad. He did strike late to make things interesting.
A key missed call for a high stick on Kevin Fiala cost the Rangers. Even after the two refs and two linesmen got together, they decided it wasn’t a penalty. Much to the chagrin of the Rangers bench, it proved pivotal. Off the next face off, Colton Sissons beat rookie Brett Howden cleanly back to Ekholm, who quickly fed an open Subban for a one-timer through traffic that beat a screened Lundqvist for a Predators’ 2-1 lead with 16:32 remaining in the third period. If Shattenkirk didn’t look to go for a block, Lundqvist probably has the shot. But he couldn’t see it, causing frustration afterwards.
The Rangers didn’t have a single power play until there were six minutes left. They didn’t make the most of it. Both Kreider and Zibanejad were too quiet. Each needs better games tomorrow. Buchnevich was more noticeable, eventually getting rewarded on a nifty deflection goal off a Zibanejad shot that cut the deficit to 3-2 with 35 seconds left. That followed a Sissons empty netter in which he turned around and fired the puck down into the open net for a 3-1 Nashville lead.
At least the Rangers didn’t quit. Prior to the goal, which came during a four on four with Lundqvist on the bench for an extra attacker, the Rangers were called for a bench minor that negated a second power play which Zuccarello drew on Subban with 1:30 to go. I thought it was Fast unless my eyes deceived me. It was. Fast was on and drove the net where Subban pulled him down. Zuccarello came on as the seventh skater with it a six on five, which ultimately cost the team. The scorekeeper made a mistake.
Good job by Buchnevich getting in front for his redirection of Zibanejad’s shot that made it interesting. That the Blueshirts were able to get a final desperation shot from Shattenkirk, which forced Rinne into a tough save, was encouraging. There was no quit. Exactly what we want to see.
As with any first game, there’s plenty of room for improvement. I expect better performances from Zibanejad and Kreider. Hopefully, Vesey continues to play well and finally gets one to go. He can use it for his confidence. There’s not much to complain about.
Fans need to be patient and have a fresh perspective with this group. So, if you’re upset that Cody McLeod is likely replacing an ineffective Vladislav Namestnikov tomorrow, please try to remember that this is a different coach. I have full confidence in how Quinn will use Cody. Namestnikov has to be better, or he’ll be in the doghouse. He’s on the fourth line for a reason. Ice time will be earned under this coach.
Final thoughts. Clean up the mistakes. Don’t make it easy on the Sabres with sloppy turnovers that can feed their transition led by new captain Jack Eichel. He plays with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhardt.
The Rangers also will get their first look at Casey Mittlestadt. The American center they passed on in 2017 for Lias Andersson with the seventh overall pick. He’s centering the third line. Beware of Ranger killer Carter “E.F.” Hutton. He’s the new Buffalo starter.
THREE NYR STARS:
1st 🌟 Henrik Lundqvist 30 saves
2nd 🌟 Jesper Fast 1st goal
3rd 🌟 Jimmy Vesey 4 shots
Unsung Hero: Adam McQuaid