The goals kept coming for the New York Rangers, who followed up a victory in their home opener with another win, this time on the road in Minnesota. A power-play goal 4:06 into the opening frame by Chris Kreider got the offense rolling, as the Rangers scored six more times en route to a 7-3 win over the Minnesota Wild.
It was not as dominant of a performance as the score may indicate, nor one like the Rangers had against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. Yet, through two games, head coach Gerard Gallant’s group looks as well-rounded as any team in the NHL this season. Of course, you cannot exaggerate the results of a mere two games, but when they are against teams that put up 110 and 113 points respectively last season, you can start to feel good about the on-ice product.
In Minnesota on Thursday night, we saw brilliance from Artemi Panarin (four points) and Igor Shesterkin (33 saves), and the emergence of Alexis Lafreniere (two assists), Vincent Trocheck (two points), and Kaapo Kakko (one goal). Adam Fox (two points) looked as comfortable as ever with the puck on his stick, and Filip Chytil (one goal) and K’Andre Miller (one assist) joined in on the fun as well.
Up and down the lineup there were contributions, and the big names shined bright as the Rangers cruised to a 3-0 first-period lead and never looked back. The game opened up at times, and the Rangers want to ensure that doesn’t happen on the second leg of a back-to-back Friday night in Winnipeg.
Still, the Rangers are 2-0-0 to start the new campaign. Here are three takeaways from their first road victory of the season.
Panarin, Trocheck, & Lafreniere Click
Vitali Kravtsov started on the second line opening night alongside Panarin and Trocheck, but an injury knocked him out of the action in the opening minutes. Since then, Lafreniere has stepped up and joined the threesome, immediately meshing with the two. The trio combined for eight points in the winning effort over the Wild, scoring three goals at five-on-five.
Lafreniere, who many expect to have a breakout campaign, has looked great in a more significant role, finessing two beautiful passes into tight windows to set up both Fox and Panarin for goals. When he was drafted, the Rangers’ knew the first overall pick was an elite playmaker, and we saw flashes of that during the first period Thursday night (from ‘Alexis Lafreniere helps Rangers offense erupt in lopsided win over Wild,’ NY Post, 10/13/22).
Panarin looked like vintage Panarin, with four points in the contest, including his first goal of the year. A cross-seam pass to Mika Zibanejad in the first period opened the lane for a return pass to Kreider on the opening tally. From there, the Russian winger recorded three more points at even strength, getting a secondary assist on Fox’s goal, recording his marker with 11 seconds remaining in the first, and adding a primary assist on Trocheck’s first as a Ranger.
It was a brilliant performance, not only by the three individuals on the line but for the unit as a whole. Each player looked in sync, finding open ice to move the puck effortlessly, leading to several extended offensive zone shifts. They also forechecked well, hounding the puck all game.
During the preseason, Gallant was looking for a second line that would work best. He settled with Kravtsov there to open the year, but this newly formed trio looks like they belong together, and that’s a scary thought for the opposition.
Shesterkin Is the Reigning Vezina Winner for a Reason
The Rangers hope they won’t have to call on Shesterkin to be as brilliant as often this season, but the reigning Vezina winner can still alter a game in favor of the Blueshirts. At one point in the first period, the shots on goal were 12-2 in favor of the Wild, yet the score was 1-0 Rangers.
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No, these weren’t low-danger outside shots he was facing; they were excellent chances off the sticks of Kirill Kaprizov, Matt Boldy, and others. Shesterkin kept the Rangers in front in the first period, and then the offense took over from there. The 26-year-old goaltender has ascended the goaltending ranks rapidly since taking over the number one job with the Rangers. And now, he looks to continue his stellar play with arguably the most complete roster of his tenure in front of him.
You cannot expect Shesterkin to post another .935 save percentage this season, which was the seventh-highest mark since they started keeping the stat. Yet, if he is just great, as opposed to other-worldly in 2022-23, the Rangers will be extremely tough to beat.
Gallant and the Rangers arguably have the best goaltender in the league right now, and even when the group in front of him breaks down, Shesterkin still provides them with a chance to win. Through the first two games this season, his numbers look eerily similar to those that won him the Vezina last year. He finished with a 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 2021-22. Thus far in 2022-23, Shesterkin has a 2.02 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. In other words, he is still very, very good.
Rangers Look to Have Learned From Last Year
I know it is very early, but all early indications are that the Rangers have learned and grown from last year. There are still 80 games to be played, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself just yet, but you know that “step” we have talked about since Kakko and Lafreniere was drafted? Well, it looks like they have taken it.
Kakko scored a goal against the Wild that fans have been waiting for. One where he uses his size and skill to maneuver to the net, control the puck, and finish off the play. It was a magnificent goal, but more so, it was a massive sign that maybe he is starting to play with the confidence needed to become the player we all thought he could be.
It isn’t just Kakko who looks like they have taken that step. K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider have improved on the backend, with Miller starting to become a premier, two-way defender. The team as a whole looks to be more responsible too, and the advanced stats even show it, with the Rangers registering a Corsi for percentage of 50% or better at five-on-five in each of the first two games, per Natural Stat Trick.
There is a lot of excitement around this season’s group and what they could accomplish. Throughout training camp, the Rangers talked a lot about learning from defeat and taking the next step. Over the first two games, all that discussion and dedication to improvement is yielding results. Now, we wait and see if that trend continues throughout the season and if the win over the Wild will become the norm or simply an outlier.