Rangers finally back from vacation to face Oilers


Believe it or not, there’s a game this afternoon for the Rangers! It feels like they took a vacation. I kid. But really, what kind of schedule is this? You have teams that played four games already while the Blueshirts enter today’s match 2-0-0 against unbeaten Edmonton.

Game time is 1 PM at The Garden. One of those rare early matinees for fans who are going to get out to quickly. Good luck to anyone who drove. Finding spots on a Saturday is about as fun as going to the dentist. I think Oilers buddy John will be there. He gets to take the Path train into Penn Station to see the surprising first place Oilers.

Edmonton is a perfect 4-0-0 to start the season under new coach Dave Tippett. It’s not only about leading scorers Connor McDavid (3-7-10) and Leon Draisaitl (2-6-8). James Neal has been reborn. He leads the league with seven goals highlighted by a four goal game in a road win at the Islanders. Five of the seven have come on the power play. The seven goals match his ’18-19 season total in Calgary, who foolishly swapped him for Milan Lucic. Oops.

Zack Kassian enters with five points (3-2-5) while benefiting from playing on the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl. The former Buffalo first round pick has found a home. He knows where to go to get the goals and has turned himself into a good hockey player. It helps that he cleaned up his life. He could’ve been a bust.

Edmonton isn’t going to blow you away after the vaunted top line featuring the game’s best player and the talented Draisaitl, who can make goalies look silly such as his perfect snipe off the far post and in to beat Mackenzie Blackwood the other night in a shootout. You knew the game was over for the Devils right after he came out.

The Oilers can skate with anyone. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom are excellent skaters, who make things happen. Plus Nugent-Hopkins is a smart two-way center. Klefbom is a smooth skater who can transition the puck and get involved offensively. Darnell Nurse is the steady two-way defenseman that continues to improve. He and Klefbom do the heavy lifting on a back end without Adam Larsson, who’s already out six to eight weeks.

There are supporting cast parts such as shot blocker Kris Russell, unheralded Matt Benning and unknown forwards Joakim Nygard and Gaetan Haas. Plus savvy vets Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheehan.
When you look at this roster overall, you wonder if it can sustain the early play over 82 games. Having a good coach like Tippett should help due to the system. Defense and checking are emphasized. Something that’s needed to be successful with a goalie tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.

So, how will the week layoff affect the Rangers? Mika Zibanejad was off to a torrid start with eight points in the two wins including his third career hat trick and a helper to do in former team Ottawa. They are very bad.

Zibanejad has excellent chemistry with new toy Artemi Panarin. The Bread Man already has two power play goals while adding two assists and a plus-four rating on the top line with playmaker Pavel Buchnevich (2 assists). Buchnevich is without a shot on goal through two games. He needs to be more selfish to become a threat. Otherwise, he won’t stay on that line for long.

The key to the season is getting the second line going. So far, it’s been quiet with Ryan Strome admitting that they can be better. They need to have the puck more to be successful. Especially with power forward Chris Kreider out there with second pick Kaapo Kakko, who is a puck beast. A harder forecheck is the answer. Kakko is still searching for his first NHL point. If he gets it later, he’ll beat top pick Jack Hughes, who is now centering the Devils third line. Strange doings in New Jersey.

Jacob Trouba has been as good as advertised. In two games, he has a goal and three helpers while logging over 23 and a half minutes as a responsible top defenseman. He plays power play and penalty kill while adjusting to new partner Libor Hajek.

Brady Skjei is off to another slow start. It’s all about consistency. At some point, he needs to find it. He gets paid handsomely to be more reliable. Adam Fox will again partner up. I like what I’ve seen from him. He’s a good skater, who makes smart decisions. Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo remain intact like most of last season. DeAngelo’s speed and skating is the key to the pair.

I would like to see Lias Andersson get more shifts. He’s a hard working center David Quinn trusts enough to kill penalties with Zibanejad. Now, he’ll play with Greg McKegg, who replaces recently traded Vladislav Namestnikov. Brendan Smith continues to impress with his work ethic, which explains why he has a unique role on the fourth line while shifting back to D to kill penalties. The Rangers have only allowed one power play goal.

For now, it’s Brett Howden with Jesper Fast and antagonist Brendan Lemieux, who DQ liked so much, he bumped him up in two straight games to make Namestnikov expendable.

Henrik Lundqvist gets his second start.

In case you’re wondering about Hartford, they’re 2-0-0 so far by sweeping last weekend. Both Ryan Lindgren and Sean Day scoring from an active blueline that includes Joey Keane, who also has a pair entering their third game tonight.

Vitali Kravtsov became an early story when he was a healthy scratch in the second game. He wasn’t good in his pro debut with the Wolf Pack, only getting nine minutes of ice time. The AHL isn’t like before. There are a lot of new faces trying to make an impression. No player is above getting benched. Even if you’re a top prospect like Kravtsov from the KHL. We’ll see how he responds.

Filip Chytil bounced back from a quiet first game at center with two assists in the second Hartford win. Both Igor Shesterkin and Adam Huska were victorious.

That’s it for now. I’ll have more later. It should be a good test for the Rangers.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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