Zibanejad’s pair lead the way in Opening Night win over Lightning, Goodrow pots one, Kravtsov leaves due to head injury on Hedman hit

There’s nothing like Opening Night. Especially when it features two of the league’s best teams on national TV. For the Rangers, it was a successful season opener. Led by Mika Zibanejad’s two goals, they defeated the Lightning 3-1 at MSG.

With a sellout crowd of 18,006 including future Hall Of Famer Henrik Lundqvist in attendance cheering his former team, they handled business against a good opponent. In a rematch of the Eastern Conference Final, it was the Rangers who prevailed to get a feel good victory to begin the ’22-23 campaign.

The game coincided with Game One of the ALDS involving the Yankees and Indians. Or if you prefer, the team from Cleveland. I don’t recognize any new names due to overkill. But it’s been a good night in the Bronx. That’s my only observation.

With October postseason baseball around, it can be difficult to focus on Game 1 of 82 in the hockey season. Especially when there’s a rooting interest. I’d be remiss if I didn’t send my best to Hasan on the Mets. They had a great year. The way the playoffs are set up, it’s a crap shoot.

On what was an exciting night for New York sports fans, you had to divide your attention if you’re like me. It must be easier if you’re not emotionally invested. I’m glad both the Yankees and Rangers won tonight.

Lately, that’s how it’s been going. Even both local football teams have winning records. There’s a lot to be happy about these days. Plenty of fun distractions from other stuff. That’s a huge plus. Especially for me personally.

I’ll be honest. It was hard to follow the first period of the Bolts/Blueshirts. The Yankees started at the same time. So, I was distracted. I also was on a phone call that wasn’t exactly great. That lasted through nearly the entire first period.

When I did tune into the ESPN broadcast, I saw Andrei Vasilevskiy make a bunch of great saves. He had Chris Kreider’s number in this game. The 52-goal man probably should’ve had a pair like his line mate eventually did.

I also noticed that in the early going, there weren’t a whole lot of shots. At one point, it was all even at two. Eventually, the parade to the penalty box changed things. At least there was only one power play in the opening 20 minutes.

Kaapo Kakko had a strong first game. Although he didn’t hit the score sheet, he was very noticeable throughout by drawing two penalties. That included the first one of the game on Erik Cernak with under four minutes left in the first.

On their first power play of the season, the Rangers peppered Vasilevskiy getting six shots through. The former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner was like a brick wall. His best two stops came on Kreider directly in front. One was ridiculous. That’s the elite level of goaltending we got in this game.

Although the shots favored the Rangers 14-8, Igor Shestyorkin also was sharp repelling all eight shots sent his way. The reigning Vezina winner heard it from the crowd throughout. The familiar, “Iggg-or, Iggg-or, Iggg-or!!!”, was the chant by the Garden Faithful.

There was no scoring in the first period. However, you had some physicality. Ryan Lindgren took a tough hit from Brayden Point late in the stanza. Of course, he was okay. However, Vitaly Kravtsov suffered an apparent head injury on an awkward hit delivered by Lightning ace defenseman Victor Hedman along the boards. Here’s how it looked:

Anytime the head is involved, you have to be concerned. Unless you’re a hater because it’s a player you aren’t a fan of… That was a tough play. Kravtsov was in a vulnerable position and Hedman’s knee contacts him up high while leaning on the 22-year old Russian forward. His arm also extends moving Kravtsov down. That probably didn’t help.

Of course, there’s already been plenty of debate on the hit by a clean player with a good reputation. It’s hard to conclude anything. You’d have to ask Hedman. But at least one beat reporter described the context of the play well.

It doesn’t have to be the hardest hit to do damage. Hedman’s a big, strong guy. He is listed at 6-6, 241. Kravtsov goes 6-3, 186. He’s giving up a lot in weight class. Considering the subtle impact, it’s not surprising he probably went through concussion protocol. With the next games Thursday at Minnesota and Friday at Winnipeg, I wouldn’t expect to see him. Maybe you see Dryden Hunt get in unless Sammy Blais can return.

Coach Gerard Gallant provided the usual update. Upper-body. Day-to-day. He’ll be re-evaluated. That’s all you’ll get from Turk, who tries his best to keep things calm. It’s similar throughout a league that emphasizes gambling. I’ve been pretty outspoken about it. So, I’ll leave it at that.

Between intermission, at least you had Chris Chelios doing his best to entertain Mark Messier. They showed a flashback to Gallant battling Chelios in a game. Let’s just politely say he was on the receiving end. I like stuff like that. It’s nice to look back at what the game used to be. A lot tougher and dirtier. Just ask Mr. Elbow sitting next to him.

In the second period, the action picked up. With Gallant forced to mix and match without Kravtsov, he bumped up birthday boy Alexis Lafreniere. He celebrated his 21st birthday by getting additional minutes on the new second line with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck. He was involved on the forecheck and had four shots on goal in 17:28. He looks poised for a good third year.

Following Shestyorkin stops on Point and Hedman, Trocheck took an ill advised holding minor in the offensive zone. He grabbed Nick Paul for no reason. Ironically, he wears the same number as Ryan Strome. The familiar number 16. That penalty was a classic Strome. Trocheck does take bad penalties. Don’t forget the second round series when he played for the Hurricanes. At least he wins face-offs. He did well going 10-and-6.

After an early save from Shestyorkin on Kucherov from the outside, the aggressive Rangers penalty kill went to work. Kreider had two more looks on Vasilevskiy shorthanded. It was Zibanejad who took advantage of a Mikhail Sergachev bad pinch to get the first goal of the season.

K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba combined to send Zibanejad on a two-on-one with Lafreniere who wisely drove the net, Zibanejad patiently moved in and faked forehand before whipping a perfect backhand upstairs past Vasilevskiy for his first of the game at 3:25.

Leading by one over eight minutes into the second period, the Rangers got into penalty trouble. On a delayed tripping call on Miller which Brandon Hagel helped, Goodrow took an unnecessary extra minor on Hagel by elbowing him along the boards. That gave the Lightning a full two-man advantage.

As fans booed the call due to it being a five-on-three, both Trouba and Lindgren were their usual feisty selves. They combined for three blocks. One clear nearly allowed a speeding Zibanejad to get a three-on-five breakaway. Can you imagine?

After another Shestyorkin glove save on Kucherov, this time the Lightning drew even thanks to a well executed face-off play. Point easily beat Jimmy Vesey to move the puck back to Kucherov on one side. He laid a perfect pass across for one of those lethal Steven Stamkos one-timers that went top shelf on a helpless Shestyorkin to tie it with 10:51 left in the period.

Despite the score remaining tied for the remainder of the period, the Rangers controlled most of the action. They were busier on the attack against a Tampa team who was forced to subtract key defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Also skating without Anthony Cirelli (out two months due to surgery), it was noticeable how much they missed both. They’ll only get Cirelli back. McDonagh now skates for the Predators, who I think will be a serious contender. They’re already 2-0 by handling the inept Sharks in the Czech Republic. Poor David Quinn.

With the refs continuing to call it tight, the Lightning handed the Rangers consecutive power plays. Filip Chytil drew an interference minor on Ross Colton. But it was again the Vasilevskiy show. He made five more shorthanded saves by denying Trocheck twice and robbing Kreider twice. After Sergachev saved a sure goal, Vasilevskiy got across to stone Kreider, who must’ve felt like he was having nightmares of the Lightning ace.

The second straight man-advantage came on a Stamkos slash that Kakko drew. He really moved his feet. He didn’t register a shot. But I like what I saw.

Both Panarin and Kreider had shots miss wide. Then, Vasilevskiy denied Zibanejad twice on his shot. He’s so dangerous from that left circle. The Bolts netminder was splendid finishing with 36 saves on 39 shots. That included 13 of 14 down a man.

As the power play wound down, Panarin tried one of those dying quails to nowhere that was easily picked off. The sloppy turnover allowed Nick Paul to skate in transition and get a chance with a backhand that Shestyorkin stopped. Those are exactly the kind of predictable passes Panarin must avoid. Take the shot.

With the second winding down, Chytil absorbed a tough hit from Patrick Maroon. He is definitely bigger and stronger than last year. When he wasn’t centering the third line, he got a shift between Vesey and Ryan Reaves. He makes things happen.

In the third period, it was a Vladislav Namestnikov high-sticking minor on Goodrow following a successful Rangers’ penalty kill of a Goodrow minor that turned the tide. With Namestnikov in the box and Lightning coach Jon Cooper incensed, all he could do is watch as Panarin sent a nice centering feed across for a Zibanejad one-timer past Vasilevskiy at 5:11. That power play goal proved to be the game-winner.

The clutch play came due to a Zibanejad face-off win against Paul in the offensive zone. That allowed both Kreider and Panarin time to work the puck around for the sweet Zibanejad finish. His second of the game. The way he played, he could’ve had more. I thought he’d get the hat trick. He came oh so close.

A Carpenter hold on Paul a minute and a half later gave the Bolts an opportunity to tie it. But this time, it was the Rangers on the penalty kill who won the battle. Zibanejad just missed a second shorthanded goal. Shestyorkin would handle the two Lightning shots from Stamkos and Corey Perry to keep it a one-goal lead.

A few minutes later, the Rangers put it away. Thanks to a hard-working shift from the checking line, their hustle resulted in a Goodrow goal versus his ex-teammates. Reaves started it with a good play on the boards to get the puck up for a pinching Lindgren, who moved it down low for Carpenter. He then passed for a Lindgren one-timer that Goodrow redirected in for his first to make it 3-1 with exactly nine minutes remaining.

It was some strong work by all four players to allow Goodrow to execute the neat deflection past Vasilevskiy at the 11-minute mark. That’s the kind of player he is. He can fit anywhere and standout due to his grit.

Even though Chytil took another penalty (holding), the Lightning never could draw any closer. They eventually lifted Vasilevskiy for a six-on-four with under 1:50 left.

Zibanejad stayed out there with Goodrow. Obviously, Gallant was hoping for a third goal for the Rangers’ best forward. That’s how complete a player the 29-year old center now is. He’s elite. I’m glad I was in the don’t trade Zibanejad camp for Jack Eichel. Mika is a better three zone player who has become the most irreplaceable forward the Blueshirts have.

He did get one crack at the hat trick. But the long clear he sent softly down the ice towards the open net squeaked off the post for an icing. He was by far the best player tonight. Kudos to Mika.

Following one more stop from Shestyorkin, a Trocheck block of a Kucherov offering cleared the zone. Time wound down. As the buzzer sounded, the Rangers had their first victory. A very good way to start this new season.

A couple of more thoughts. Based on what I saw late, Gallant trusted Zac Jones by having him out for a shift with partner Braden Schneider. His skating helped him get out of trouble. The broadcast noted it. Interestingly, he received 13:31 of ice time including 23 seconds on the second power play unit and 9 seconds shorthanded. Schneider got 11:47 including 10 seconds on the penalty kill.

This season, Schneider has a new number. Gone is #45. In is number 4.

Adam Fox didn’t register a shot or point. A rarity for the very dangerous offensive defenseman. He logged 21:42 including 5:18 PP and 4:22 PK. Partner Lindgren got 18:18 with 5:56 while shorthanded.

New captain Jacob Trouba led all skaters with 25:49. Six seconds more than Hedman (25:43). Both K’Andre Miller and Zibanejad each had 23:13. Trocheck also went over 20 minutes with 22:07. He can play in any situation.

Seven Lightning had over 21 minutes with Cooper double shifting his top players. That could be a trend on Tampa due to their roster minus Cirelli.

Face-offs: Rangers 30 Lightning 17

SOG: Rangers 39 Lightning 26

Total Attempts: Rangers 71 Lightning 46

Blocked Shots: Lightning 22 (Sergachev 7) Rangers 12 (4 with 2 each)

Hits: Rangers 24 (Lafreniere 4) Lightning 19 (Myers 3)

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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