In last night’s season opener for both clubs, the Rangers managed a 5-3 win over the Islanders at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the Isles fought back, tying up the score in the third period. The tie did not last for long, as the Rangers’ Chris Kreider scored the goal of the night on a beautiful stretch pass from rookie Pavel Buchnevich. Newcomer Brandon Pirri and then JT Miller piled on, which basically put away the game.
Frankly, the game was loose all over the ice, and it was not clear what would have happened if the game lasted another five minutes. This one could have gone either way.
The fluid play made me think about training camp, the preseason and the World Cup. It is not unusual for teams to open the season in less than mid-season form. But this game looked particularly sloppy to me.
So, were the teams better prepared to start the season last year than they were in the fall of 2016? And if so, did participation in the World Cup affect the preparedness?
There are no simple answers to these questions and the advanced stats guys can do a better job with this than I can. But, if you look at very simple statistics, in the first two days of last season, when there were 11 games played, 57 goals were scored. This was an average of 5.18 goals per game. This year, 13 games were played on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Ninety goals were scored, which was 6.92 goals per game. To me, that is a significant difference. Well, you might say that Auston Matthews skews the curve. So, lets take out his four goals scored on Wednesday night. That’s still 86 goals in two days, averaging 6.62 goals per game.
This increase in goal scoring is intriguing and one has to wonder if there is a reason. Could it be the preseason and the World Cup of Hockey? Could it be the level of talent in the league?
Lets address the latter first. Other than Auston Matthews, three other rookies scored goals (Patrik Laine, Ryan Hartman, and Jesse Puljujarvi each scored one) in the last two days. Other than that, the talent was the same as last year. Hmm. Three goals. Not much difference at all.
So, how about differences in the preseason, and particularly the World Cup?
Over the last few weeks we have heard more than one coach say that the purpose of preseason games is to evaluate players, particularly players on the bubble. But, clearly another purpose of exhibition games is to see which lines have chemistry, and to get the goalies in gear for the start of the season. If so, did the absence of key players affect the first games?
There is no doubt that the World Cup was not only exciting, it assisted with the goalies preparations for the 2016-17 season. The intensity of the play could not be beat. And it is the goalies that need the preseason practice the most.
What the World Cup did not do, however, was to give those goaltenders sufficient practice behind their own defense, particularly with when the blueliners that will be in front of them are new to the team. Neither Jaroslav Halak nor Henrik Lundqvist, the goalies in net last night, had spent much time on the ice with Dennis Seidenberg, and Adam Clendening and Nick Holden in front of them. There were several times where mixups were seen and one has to wonder whether the lack of playing together was the cause.
As for defensemen that returned, the only one in this game that had participated in the World Cup was Ryan McDonagh. He had a less than stellar game handling the puck, but it was not clear that it had anything to do with his time working as a pair with Dan Girardi. However, generally when there is less time to work within a pairing, there are more errors.
Forwards too had less time to work with linemates, which seemed obvious in some of the play at MSG last night. But, scorers will score if you get them the puck and the defense is a step behind, which it seemed to be often last night.
Look, the Rangers got the win, and so no sure conclusions can be drawn about the positives and negatives of the World Cup. But, it will be interesting to see whether the goals in game statistic falls back in line with last season as time goes on. And in a league where every point is important (even during the first week of the season), it has to be considered that the possibility of injury during the World Cup may not have been the only early season danger NHL teams and their players faced from participation.