If this is what we can expect from the 2023-2024 Rangers, then this could be a very interesting season.
Chris Kreider scored a power play goal and a shorthanded goal, Alexis Lafreniere scored the first goal of the season, Artemi Panarin had a goal and an assist and the Rangers put forth a stout defensive effort as they christened the Peter Laviolette era with an impressive 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres at Keybank Center.
The Sabres were third in the NHL in goals last season but the Rangers were able to stymie their offense with strong coverage in the neutral zone by limiting space, something that was stressed by the new coach when he took over the reins from Gerard Gallant.
The numbers, beside the final score, justify the Rangers hold on this game. A 31-25 shot advantage, 23 blocked shots, a game high eight by Jacob Trouba, and the penalty kill was 3 for 3. One number that really stood out was the Rangers’ 63%-27% faceoff advantage.
Of course, Igor Shesterkin was there to make the clutch saves but the Rangers were able to keep his workload down as they held Buffalo to just 12 shots through two periods. Shesterkin made 23 stops overall as he won his 200th career game.
Lafreniere was elevated to the second line with Filip Chytil and Panarin and the trio paid early dividends to give the Rangers the early lead.
Chytil tipped a pass to Panarin who fired a shot from the slot that was stopped by Sabres goaltender Devon Levi, but the “Bread-man” got his own rebound and saw Lafreniere was wide open on the left. Panarin passed the puck to Lafreniere, who scored the easiest goal of his young career, as he directed it into the open net for a 1-0 lead at 3:47 of the first period.
“I thought the line was excellent, Laviolette said after his first win as Rangers coach. “It was good to get Fil back in there. He’s trying to get up to speed a little bit with everybody else because he’s missed some time. I thought Artemi was excellent tonight with his game and the line I though was really effective.”
Lafreniere had some jump to his game but his focus was on the win, not his season opening goal. “Good win, good 60, we played well, power play was good, penalty kill was really good too. Lots of big blocks, good to see. I think our team played really well,” he said after an encouraging game.
The Rangers didn’t waste much time to cash in on their first power play opportunity of the season.
With Buffalo’s touted rookie Zach Benson taking his first career penalty for hooking, Kreider tipped in an Adam Fox shot just 16 seconds into the man advantage to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Kreider made a pretty deflection to beat Levi for his first goal of the season and give Fox his 200th career point (in 286 career games), becoming the 6th fastest defenseman and second fastest Ranger defenseman (Brian Leetch-264 games) to reach that mark.
The Rangers went up 3-0 in the second period as Panarin scored his first of the season.
Lafreniere, who looked very comfortable with Panarin and Chytil, set up his linemate for the goal. The fourth year winger won a battle along the left side boards and was able to chip the puck to Panarin who beat Levi with a wrister from the slot.
J.J. Peterka broke up the shutout as he beat Shesterkin with 90 seconds left in the second period but the Rangers skated off after two with a 3-1 lead.
The penalty killing unit really strut their stuff in the third period. First, they killed off the Sabres man advantage that had carried over from the second period.
Midway through the third, Chytil was off for tripping but the Rangers put on a shot blocking clinic that lasted for consecutive power plays. With 11 seconds left on Chytil’s penalty, Vincent Trocheck went off for tripping giving the Sabres a short, 5 on 3 advantage. Shot after shot was blocked as nothing was getting through to Shesterkin, and it led to a back breaking goal by the Rangers.
Ryan Lindgren blocked a shot that led to Zibanejad picking up a loose puck on the rush at center ice. Zibanejad skated into the Sabres zone where he momentarily lost the puck but he was able to recover and pass it past a couple of Sabres players to Kreider who was wide open in front. Kreider was able to shove the puck under Levi and into the net for a shorthanded goal and his second goal of the game to give the Rangers a 4-1 lead.
“Power play moved the puck, I thought pretty good tonight,” Laviolette said. “Penalty kill was absolutely courageous, the way they defended and the way they blocked shots tonight was something also. It’s one win but it’s a good start.”
Trouba finished off an outstanding game when he scored into the empty net with 1:29 left to cap the scoring. Zibanejad won the faceoff in the Ranger zone, got it to Kreider who passed to Trouba and the Ranger captain fired it down the ice and into the net. It was Zibanejad’s third assist of the game and Kreider’s assist was his third point of the night.
The line combinations worked well, the defense and special teams were strong and it’s only one game, but it beats being 0-1.
Late in the first period, Nick Bonino, a left handed shot with a curved left handed stick, won a faceoff right handed.
The first power play unit featured Kreider, Zibanejad, Trocheck, Panarin and Fox. Laviolette employed a 2nd power play unit that featured Chytil, Kakko, Lafreniere, Blake Wheeler, who made his Ranger debut and K’Andre Miller, who had an assist in the game.
The win was the fourth time in franchise history that the margin was by 4 or more goals.