Lafreniere and Miller provide insight on what they learned from a tough NHL debut


There they were for all to see at MSG under the lights. Well, for most of us anyway, we had to settle for watching on TV and listening to Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti call the action of the season opener on Thursday night. Unless you’re a Garden employee or member of the media, you are stuck in the hockey version of quarantine.

It’s definitely different from past seasons. Even if this special one just started a couple of days ago, it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Sure. The NHL Playoff Bubble made us understand how unique the situation was for the 24 teams that participated last summer. But it’s not the same as taking in a hockey game at an empty home arena without the usual strong support of the fans. Something Hasan alluded to in one of his recent posts.

I wonder what both Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller were thinking as they were introduced by MSG public address announcer Joe Tolleson to the pumped in fake crowd noise. These remain strange times for everyone. For Lafreniere and Miller, they made their NHL debuts at an empty Garden. It had to be a little bittersweet. That’s the harsh reality for almost every player currently. In most cases, there won’t be fans. How can there be in Dallas once the Stars are cleared to play? It doesn’t make sense. Nothing does.

As excited as they had to be to finally make their Rangers debut, it was different for both kids. Lafreniere is the 19-year old teenage rookie sensation who went number one overall a three months ago. He didn’t look out of place. Even if it was a tough day at the office with the more experienced and better structured Islanders taking care of the Rangers to easily prevail 4-0, it’s a moment he’ll never forget. He’ll have better nights ahead.

Miller is 20 and surprised many pundits by making the team. He was so impressive that coach David Quinn scrapped his idea of trying Tony DeAngelo with Jacob Trouba. Instead, it was Miller paired with Trouba against a hard forechecking opponent that is tough. There were some mistakes made. Way too many from more experienced players including Trouba, who was culpable on the first Anders Lee goal.

There were far too many passengers in a humiliating performance that irked many observers. The realization is for Lafreniere and Miller, they learned a valuable lesson in their first game. Something each referenced when discussing it with the press via Zoom Conference. They understand how much harder it’ll be if they and the team want to be successful.

“The National Hockey League is a tough league to win in. This first game is a great example of that. Every game’s gonna be a battle, and you have to play the full 60 minutes,” Miller pointedly stated.

Obviously, they know that ugly display was not even in the ballpark if they want to be taken seriously. The good part is they get a do over by facing those same gritty Islanders tomorrow night again at Nassau Coliseum The Garden. I’m still adjusting to this new schedule. It’s up to the leadership to bounce back. That means Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Trouba. These are the guys Quinn is leaning on. Even Pavel Buchnevich is taking on more responsibility by killing penalties with Kreider, who needs to have the same urgency at five-on-five that he had shorthanded.

It’s also easy to forget that Igor Shestyorkin is still classified a rookie. So, it wasn’t fun for him either allowing four goals on 33 shots. That included at least one he would like back. Take your choice between the Lee goal and the Mat Barzal tally. Shestyorkin did play much better following the tough start by making some acrobatic stops. He’ll have Saturday off.

Getting the call will be Alex Georgiev. A goalie who’s had success versus the Islanders. We’ll see how the team responds to the early challenge. Quinn wasn’t making any excuses for what happened in the first game. Fans or no fans. It’s the same for each side. Counting the dismal three game sweep against the Hurricanes last August where they looked lost, the Rangers haven’t won a game in 10 months. They didn’t exactly finish the ’19-20 regular season well. It’s time for the 18 skaters and goalie to show up ready to play.

Whatever Quinn determines with the defense even if DeAngelo sits for Brendan Smith, they have a job to do. They’ll also be without Kevin Rooney following a collision with Isles enforcer Ross Johnston. So, it could be Phil Di Giuseppe coming into the lineup for Rooney. Hopefully, he didn’t suffer a serious injury. He’s listed as day-to-day for now.

What we do know for sure is Quinn liked Lafreniere’s aggressiveness enough to swap him with Kaapo Kakko, who again fizzled. If only he’d hit the net on a perfect Strome setup. Kakko isn’t as fluid a skater as the speedier Lafreniere, who plays a North American game. Perhaps that’s the thinking with the change. He’ll shift to right wing to play with Strome and Panarin. We’ll see how long the combination lasts. Quinn is like Tom Renney when it comes to line juggling.

At the start, Kakko will draw in with Filip Chytil and either Julien Gauthier or Di Giuseppe. Even the beat writers are confused as to who will play with who.

If Quinn wants more urgency, he’s got their attention. Whether or not it works remains to be seen. What will be interesting is to see how the young pups respond. Both Lafreniere and Miller are keys to the season. We’ll see if they can make a positive impact in less than 24 hours.

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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