In the first hockey they’ve played since March, the Rangers had an exhibition game against the Islanders at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. It was a tuneup for both old rivals as they each get ready for their respective Preliminary Series that starts this Saturday, August 1.
Considering that it was only one game prior to the expanded format starting up for real, the lineups were about what you’d expect. The Rangers dressed what will be their Game One lineup plus suspended forward Brendan Lemieux. Here are the projected lines for Carolina:
The defense pairs were the same with rookie tandem Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox leading the way.
Igor Shesterkin got the first half of the game. He permitted one goal on an Anthony Beauvillier rush before giving way to backup Henrik Lundqvist. Beauvillier made a smart play by looking pass and catching Shesterkin by surprise with a good wrist shot short side to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead.
The exhibition was a bit sloppy. That was expected. You had some good scoring chances created early by Hart candidate Artemi Panarin, who along with Ryan Strome just missed. Pavel Buchnevich also was aggressive on a shift looking for his shot to force Isles starter Semyon Varlamov into a good save.
The Rangers got into some penalty trouble in the first period. After Tony DeAngelo hooked Matt Martin, they had to deal with some strong Isles pressure in their end. In particular, Derick Brassard created some good opportunities for teammates including Brock Nelson, who had a pointblank chance go wide.
The Isles also had an abbreviated five-on-three that didn’t accomplish anything. The Blueshirts penalty killers did a strong job blocking shots and intercepting passes to make key clears down. They were sharper than their opponent’s power play.
In fact, despite not getting a power play in the first half of the tuneup, the Rangers outshot the Islanders 12-5 in the opening 20 minutes. Kaapo Kakko showed more confidence on a shift with the puck by skating into the Isles zone and getting off a good wrist shot that Varlamov stopped. The rookie showed improved skating on the play. He is a key player who could be an X-Factor versus the Hurricanes in the best of five match-up.
Defensively speaking, the Rangers did a nice job keeping the Isles attack outside. Tony DeAngelo made a nice recovery down low to break up a scoring chance, deflecting the shot wide. That’s an area he continues to work at to improve. The offensive defenseman certainly should provide quality chances at both even strength and on the power play.
On the strange side, you had Lemieux get into a tussle with Isles veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk. It amounted to a wrestling match. Meaningless. What’s the point? Especially in a exhibition after everyone has been medically cleared to participate. I doubt you’ll see too many scraps in this Stanley Cup Tournament. It doesn’t make sense. The physicality will be there along with the board battles.
Speaking of which, Barry Trotz dressed Russ Johnston as his extra forward. That’s basically what he is for the Isles with both Cal Clutterbuck and Martin healthy to play with Casey Cizikas. Johnston loves to goon it up and finish checks. He’s a legit heavyweight. Something the Blueshirts don’t have. Nothing materialized with the Rangers lacking a true heavyweight.
Overall, Varlamov was very sharp making some excellent saves to deny the Rangers. That included a couple on Jesper Fast at the doorstep. The veteran netminder went the first two without allowing a goal on 19 shots. He should start the Isles series versus the Panthers. It’ll be a battle of Russian goaltenders unless Joel Quenneville isn’t confident in Sergei Bobrovsky, who was rusty in Florida’s tuneup. The former Vezina winner has been a huge bust in Year One for the Cats.
In the third period with the Rangers still trailing by a goal, Sam Rosen noted that Marc Staal was done for the night. They term it as unfit to play. Hopefully, it’s nothing serious. The defensive depth is weak with Libor Hajek the seventh defenseman. Staal looked okay paired with regular partner DeAngelo. We’ll have to wait and see what his status will be for Saturday afternoon.
Hajek took regular shifts as the extra D in the final stanza. He looked alright while mostly teamed with Staal’s partner DeAngelo. The skating isn’t the issue. It’s the physicality. We now have to hope Staal will be okay for the first game against the Canes.
The Rangers didn’t mount much in the third. Credit the Isles stingy defense as they did a good job of checking and clogging up the neutral zone. Time and space was taken away from Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. The Isles should benefit from having Adam Pelech back for the qualifying round. Added to a solid D corps that includes Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, Andy Greene, Devon Toews, Nick Leddy, Boychuk and rookie Noah Dobson, that should give them a defensive edge over Florida.
In the last half of the period, Toews (far side) and Filip Chytil traded goals for the 2-1 final. Toews was able to beat Lundqvist with a good wrist shot inside the goalpost. Otherwise, Lundqvist was sharp with his best stop on Mat Barzal, who tested his glove on a power play.
Chytil benefited from some excellent persistence from Fast, who took a Brendan Smith feed and broke in to get a tough backhand on Greiss that caromed into the corner. Fast got to it and centered for Chytil, who got enough on the shot to have it deflect off Josh Bailey and in. A good sign for the young center. He and Kakko looked good on the third line with Di Giuseppe.
David Quinn pulled Lundqvist following an icing with 2:13 left. However, the Rangers hardly tested Greiss, who got strong defensive coverage from his teammates. The Isles were stronger on face-offs and won most of the battles to clear the zone. The Rangers even with the KZB line plus Panarin, Fox and DeAngelo, couldn’t mount anything.
DeAngelo took some shifts late playing the left side with Fox. He did that in a few games before the break when Quinn searched for offense. Maybe he winds up on that side eventually. Something I suggested here and now Larry Brooks did in the NY Post today.
I felt the Rangers were a step behind at the end while the Isles looked in sync playing that air tight defensive system under Trotz. Hopefully, they’ll pick up the pace when it gets going for real on Saturday at high noon.