By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
An 82-game hockey season is a grueling marathon packed with peaks and valleys. Early results should be taken with a grain of salt because few teams come out of the gates like a well-oiled machine.
The Colorado Avalanche spoiled the Rangers’ opening-night party, skating away with a 4-2 victory at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. The Blueshirts gifted the Avs too much time and space and surrendered too many odd-man rushes.
It wasn’t pretty.
“They came out to play tonight,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Avs. “We fed into what they do well — transition hockey, making skilled plays. They are a fast team and we just kind of fed them in the wrong areas and they were able to capitalize.”
Henrik Lundqvist did not have his best night at his office, Brendan Smith started the game by having hiccups in his own end, and Chris Kreider blew hot and cold from the opening puck drop. All of that is fodder for pessimistic fans to run with.
But get a grip, folks. There are 81 games to go.
The Rangers ran into a hot goalie in Semyon Varlamov, who stopped 37 shots, prompting Blueshirts head coach Alain Vigneault to call him the “best player on the ice.”
Though he had a below-par 57 games last season, Lundqvist has carried this franchise and is still capable of defending his net at an elite level. Smith could be a top-four defenseman for the majority of the league’s 31 teams, is dependable in his own end and drives offense. While Kreider still needs to shed the inconsistent label, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the 26-year-old wing has as many playoff game-winning goals to his name as franchise icon Brian Leetch and has, and in five less games.
Though the season started with a loss, it wouldn’t have been wrong for Rangers fans to feel optimism as they headed for the exits. There were enough encouraging signs for fans to hang their hat on, namely a cohesive and crisp power play that went 2-for-6.
“Our power play tonight capitalized twice and permitted us to get back in the game,” Vigneault said. “They had some real good looks. There is no doubt that Mika’s (Zibanejad) unit tonight was making some good plays, so that’s a real positive sign for our team here. There is no doubt that Kevin (Shattenkirk) sees the ice well and finds the open possibilities.”
The Rangers moved the puck with assertiveness and urgency on the man-advantage, allowing Zibanejad to light the lamp twice on one-timers. Shattenkirk demonstrated excellent vision while assisting on Zibanejad’s first goal and Mats Zuccarello unleashed a cross-ice pass to the top of the left circle to set up Zibanejad’s second.
“Shatty is obviously unbelievable with the power play,” Brady Skjei said. “That pass he made to Mika on the first goal — some guys just can’t see that play. We’re lucky to have him.”
“We’ve been working on it quite a bit and we try to talk,” Zibanejad added. “I think we did a good job on the power play today. We were working back pucks and really earning and making the most of our chances. We just have to take it a step further and score one when we really need it. I think we created some good momentum from the power play. We got a couple of goals.”
Zibanejad finished with a game-high eight shots on goal and won 18 of 24 face-offs, including 10 of 11 in the offensive zone.
Rick Nash looked energetic and quick in transition. He seems to play better when he’s feisty and mixing it up with opponents, like he did with Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog in the second period. He drew a power play by getting Landeskog and J.T. Compher to bite.
Another positive sign was the play of sophomore wing Pavel Buchnevich. The 22-year-old Russian picked up an assist and recorded four shots on goal during his career-high 18:22 of ice time. Notably, Vigneault rewarded Buchnevich with late-game minutes.
“That whole line — him Mika and Kreids had some good moments in there,” Vigneault said. “Buchy had some good looks and it was a real good first game for him.”
The Rangers did not get the desired result despite outshooting Colorado 39-26. Next up is Saturday’s trip to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs, who crushed the Winnipeg Jets 7-2 in their season opener. It will mark a chance for the Rangers to tight up defensively and clean up their mistakes before the Montreal Canadiens enter the Garden on Sunday.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey