After nearly 140 days, the New York Rangers were finally back in action and it went exactly how you probably expected it to — sloppy, rusty, and a lot of adjusting back to competitive hockey. In their one and only exhibition game, the Rangers failed to muster much offense in the Battle of New York (Toronto Bubble Edition) and fell 2-1 to the New York Islanders.
As much as the players likely trained and prepared for their new quarantined lives, nothing could have gotten them ready for the reality of bubble hockey. Both the Islanders and the Rangers played a sloppy game, but that’s to be expected considering their lengthy hiatus from the sport.
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Even still, there were some indications from the performance, and even some concerns, as they prepare for their Aug. 1 tilt against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Kaapo Kakko Shined Brightly
First and foremost, the good news. Kaapo Kakko was far and away the Rangers’ best forward for all three periods. He finished the game with four shots on target, all of which came at even-strength. From the moment he took the ice, he looked stronger on the puck and very comfortable. Despite going against the heavy-hitting Islanders, Kakko maintained plenty of confidence in his board play and puck protection.
He was also fairly good without the puck too, posting positive possession stats across the board. That’s especially exciting considering his lackluster defensive performance during the regular season.
The 19-year-old seemed to gain some trust from David Quinn during the game, being rewarded with ice-time with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Unfortunately, that may be an exhibition-only line for the time being. That being said, Quinn was confident in the rookie’s play, evident by his inflated ice time. Kakko’s 12:16 time-on-ice was second among forwards at five-vs-five strength.
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Hopefully, Kakko can repeat his strong performance in Game 1 of their play-in series. The playoffs should provide the youngster with quite the stage to showcase his new-found confidence.
Starting Goalie Remains Uncertain
This exhibition should have given some context to Quinn’s plan in net going forward. Yet, the goalie waters remain murky ahead of the play-in series. He started with Igor Shesterkin for the first half then went to Henrik Lundqvist for the last 30-minutes. Unfortunately, neither were tested all that much and the question of who starts Game 1 still remains uncertain.
Shesterkin finished the game with six saves on seven shots, the last of which was a goal by Anthony Beauvillier. Blown coverage by Adam Fox led to an odd-man rush where the Isles’ capitalized. It was hardly Shesterkin’s fault, especially when he was barely tested for 30-minutes, but to end on that note is slightly concerning.
On the other hand, Lundqvist was tested far more frequently. The veteran netminder stopped 14 of 15 and but will be taxed with the loss after he let in the game-winning goal in the third period. It was a similar situation, where blown coverage and a hail-mary pass gave Devon Toews a little to much time as he whipped a shot to the opposite post past Lundqvist.
In all likelihood, Quinn will stay true and give Shesterkin the start for Game 1, but neither goalie’s performance instilled much confidence. At least it’s safe to say that Alexandar Georgiev will remain in the press box for the foreseeable future.
Other Game Notes
The power play did not have a good start to the renewed season. The Rangers finished the game at zero-for-three on the man-advantage but two of their power plays were cut short. They struggled mightily on zone entries and had trouble finding their usual slot man in Mika Zibanejad. In addition, they were far too undisciplined. They took two penalties while on the man-advantage and had three others on the night. Luckily, their penalty kill was very solid, which is especially promising since the recently departed Lindy Ruff was the PK coach.
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The suspended Brendan Lemieux provides the Rangers with a long list of intangibles. His heavy-hitting, no-nonsense, gritty style of play is a rarity on a team of mostly youngsters. His first-period fight may have been a little peculiar considering the circumstances, but I still think the Rangers will miss his physical presence for the first two games of the series.
Kakko wasn’t the only youngster to perform. Filip Chytil scored the Rangers lone goal and was a driving force on offense all game. He had some real eye-catching zone entries and his stickhandling continues to amaze. If the exhibition game was an indication of anything, it’s that the third-line of Kakko, Chytil, and Phil Di Giuseppe could turn heads in the qualifiers.
Games without fans are weird. It will take quite a few games for me to get accustomed to this new viewing experience. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the players.
Marc Staal left the game due to injury but it was just precautionary. He’ll be back in action for Saturday’s tilt, which is honestly a blessing as the next man up is Libor Hajek and he looked lost during the little ice-time he saw.
The Rangers will have one day off before they return to practice on July 31. All things considered, their performance in the exhibition game should draw some concern, but it’s their first competitive game in months. Take it with a grain of salt.
The true contest will be on Aug. 1 for Game 1 of their best-of-five qualifier series against the Hurricanes. Hopefully, the rust will be completely buffed out of their games by then.