The Rangers met and were defeated by the Islanders, 2-1, in an exhibition game played in the Toronto bubble last night. This first game back from a more than 4-month pause was highly anticipated and more than a little unusual for the Blueshirts and their fans. There was no crowd watching the game in person and all the sounds that fans (outside the bubble) heard during the game were prerecorded. Nonetheless, the audience was glued to their seats and were not disappointed when the players on the ice gave the game the intensity it deserved, given the fact that the qualifying round starts on Saturday at noon.
There has been plenty of Thursday morning quarterbacking regarding the game and the players’ performances, but given the time away, that it was the first game, and that the team had some defensive issues before the suspension of play in March, one has to think that this was a good showing for all. Is there room for improvement? Sure. Is there much time for improvement before Saturday (given today is a day off and tomorrow is their next and only practice before the team faces Carolina)? Probably not much. But they may not need that much more to stay with and possibly defeat the Canes.
Goaltending. It was no surprise that Igor Shesterkin started the game. Shesterkin was playing lights out before the break and showed no let-up in practices the two weeks of Phase 3. Shesterkin is the future in net for the team and the players are comfortable with him. It seems that it is already his team, and the players in front of him have great confidence in his play. Shesterkin faced six shots in the first period and saved all of them. He was scheduled to share the game in net with Henrik Lundqvist and, it was shame that the only shot taken in the second period (by Anthony Beauvillier) got by Shesterkin, after which he left the ice. Absent illness or injury, expect Shesterkin to be in net when the qualifiers start on Saturday. But Lundqvist will be waiting in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to take back his net. Lundqvist faced 15 shots last night and let in one goal (on a rush by defenseman Devin Toews). Both goaltenders looked good—good enough to make it close as to who should start the series. It has to be Shesterkin, but if the Rangers should fall behind in the series, do not be surprised to see Lundqvist between the pipes.
Defense and PK. There was concern about the defense before this game, but they performed well given the time frame they had to practice. The Islanders play a clog up the ice game, waiting for mistakes, but the Rangers did not make many (officially, the blueline only gave the puck away four times during the entire game). The team is still working on their systems, but that side of the puck was not much of an issue last night. What the team must do is to stay out of the penalty box. In addition to Brendan Lemieux’s fighting major, the team took six penalties. Although, the Isles did not score on any of them, it is just too many penalties to take against the best teams in the league.
Offense. What was most obviously missing through the evening was an effective power play. Through this season, the Rangers had an excellent power play, which at times seemed to score at will. Not last night; it just did not get going all game. The Rangers only goal, by Filip Chytil, came at even strength on a rebound into what basically was an empty net. Head Coach Quinn tried different line combinations throughout the game to get the offense on track, but the game was played on the Islanders’ terms. There was just no room out there. According to Chris Kreider, he thinks that this might be the norm the rest of the way, in that “no time and space, that’s what the hockey is going to be going forward,” but it really depends on which team you are playing. In his post-game presser, Quinn said, “we have to be harder,” and that he liked the PK, but that “the transition game slowed down in the second half of the game.”
The head coach specifically mentioned that he liked the play of Kappo Kakko (who played up on the second line for part of the game, but will not start there on Saturday), and of Filip Chytil. What he did not talk about was faceoffs—the Rangers won only 38%. Obviously, this put the team at a great disadvantage and needs to be improved. The only player who had a positive faceoff percentage was Brett Howden.
Takeaway. Quinn said it best when he opined that “we have to focus on getting back to where we were.” It may take a game or two against Carolina to get there—but hopefully they win at least one of those so they don’t fall behind to the dreaded 0-2.