All the time of waiting and wanting, of projecting and predicting. The two-plus years of rebuilding. The summer of monumental change.
It all finally ended in a flurry, as the revamped Rangers took the ice for their regular-season opener Thursday night and managed a dramatic 6-4 win over the Jets at the Garden.
There was a power-play goal and an assist for the $81.5 million man, Artemi Panarin. There was a goal and two assists from the man who is likely going to see more ice than any Ranger this season, new defenseman Jacob Trouba. There was a steady performance sprinkled with flashes of brilliance from 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2-overall pick who showed a cold-blooded nature that belies his age. There was a spectacular showing from Mika Zibanejad, notching a goal and two assists to start a season when he might as well be the de facto captain.
And finally, it was another young charge, 21-year-old center Brett Howden, burying a loose puck in front to take a 5-4 lead with 4:09 to play, capped by an empty-netter from Brendan Smith that made the Garden feel like it was the spring rather than the fall.
“Obviously it’s a special night,” Howden said. “With everything that went on this summer, it’s a night we’ve been counting down until. So there is a lot of buzz going on. It’s nice to get through that game, get a win, and now we can just get rolling.”
It surely was entertaining, as the pace was just as frantic as the defensive-zone coverages. The Rangers often looked disconnected — if not distracted — very quickly blowing two separate leads (and three overall). There were staked to a 2-1 edge by Panarin’s goal early in the second period, but it lasted just 30 seconds before Blake Wheeler tied it. Then Trouba’s goal to make it 3-2 at 6:03 became a lead that lasted just nine seconds when Wheeler added his second.
Kyle Connor then scored on a deft tip for a power-play goal at 2:41 of the third to give Winnipeg a 4-3 lead, only to be wiped out by Trouba making a great outlet pass to Zibanejad, who buried his breakaway with a nice backhand that bounced in off goalie Connor Hellebuyck, tying it 4-4 with just under 15 minutes to play.
“That certainly wasn’t a Picasso out there, for sure,” said coach David Quinn. “But we found a way to win. At the end of the day, that’s all the matters.”
For now, that’s true. The Rangers are going to go through quite a few growing pains this season, with such a young roster and so many new faces set to play such important roles. More often than not, they’re probably not going to win games played like this.
But for the first night of the regular season, they managed to do just that.
“I think right now, we’re trying to figure out a little bit where we are as a group and what we can accomplish,” said goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had some highlights and lowlights while facing a heavy workload of 47 shots. “We have a bunch of new players coming in. A lot of people watching them right now, and we’re off to a great start. It could bring a lot of confidence to the group.”
There was a palpable excitement in the building early, and after Lundqvist helped the Rangers get through some first-period nerves, defenseman Marc Staal was the surprising player to score the first goal of the season on a wraparound at 11:35. But blown coverage allowed Mark Scheifele to tie it at 17:23, the start of what would be a back-and-forth affair.
But if and when the Rangers look back on this night, it won’t be about how they got there. The lasting memory will be that they got a win.
“It’ll be something I remember,” Trouba said. “Right now, I’m not thinking about it as much. But one day I might look back on it, and it’ll be pretty cool.”
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