On thin ice: Rangers' 0-3 start solidifies 2018 as start of rebuild

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After falling on hard times last season, the New York Rangers open a new chapter in their storied history. Fresh off a disappointing 2017-2018 campaign, in which the team failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time in eight years, the Blueshirts enter this season with a much different roster and much different expectations.

Former Boston College head coach David Quinn has taken the reins behind the bench after Alain Vigneault was fired at the end of last season. The team currently does not have a captain, as Ryan McDonagh, the last Ranger to wear the symbolic captain’s C on his jersey, was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Other recent stalwarts such as Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden were also dealt away. This is now a rebuilding organization with a new coaching staff, a plethora of young talent and exciting prospects in their pipeline.

The Rangers opened their 2018-2019 campaign on Oct. 4 at home against the Nashville Predators. Nashville is the reigning Presidents’ Trophy champion, as the league’s best regular season team. They came off a disappointing second-round, seven-game loss to the Winnipeg Jets, but still have a loaded roster that will contend yet again for the Stanley Cup.

In the first period, the Rangers handled the Predators fairly well. Both teams had chances throughout the frame, but the goaltenders were up to the task. Henrik Lundqvist, who started his 14th consecutive season opener for the team, denied Mattias Ekholm in close about 90 seconds in, stopped Ryan Johansen on a 2-on-1 break with 8:14 left, and then gloved Craig Smith's hard wrist shot on a Nashville power play with two-and-a-half minutes to go.

Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league's top goalie, stopped Pavel Buchnevich's shot on a Rangers rush six-and-a-half minutes in, turned away a wraparound attempt by Mats Zuccarello midway through the period, and then made a sprawling save on Zuccarello's attempt in the closing seconds to keep the game scoreless.

In the second period, each team broke through. Just under four minutes in, the Rangers had some miscommunication near their defensive zone, which allowed Filip Forsberg to skate up the ice and blast a wristshot past Lundqvist at the top left corner. Nashville’s 1-0 lead wouldn’t last long, as less than four minutes later, Jesper Fast deflected Filip Chytil’s centering pass from behind the goal line on the left side. Fast’s equalizer gave the Rangers some momentum in the period. But they could not cash in on any other opportunities thanks to Rinne’s stellar goaltending. Lundqvist matched Rinne shot for shot in the frame to keep the game tied at one.

But three minutes into the third period, a missed call shifted momentum completely. Battling in the Rangers’ defensive zone, it appeared that Forsberg clipped Rangers defenseman Adam McQuaid with a high stick, but no penalty was called.

Immediately after the ensuing faceoff, the puck found its way to Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, who rifled a one-timer past Lundqvist to give Nashville a 2-1 lead.

The score remained that way until the final 90 seconds of regulation, when Nashville’s Colton Sissons converted on an empty-netter all the way from his own blue line to pad the lead to 3-1.

The Rangers still had some life, however, as Buchnevich deflected a Mika Zibanejad shot from the right point into the net to cut the deficit to 3-2 with 35 seconds left.

The Rangers could not break down the Predators defense the rest of the way. Lundqvist had a strong game, making 30 saves, but it was not enough, as the Rangers had an opening-night defeat at the hands of Nashville by a score of 3-2.

Two nights later, the Rangers played their first road game of the season up in Buffalo against the Sabres.

The Sabres have completely retooled their roster, highlighted by trading Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for a major haul of young assets and draft picks, as well as their first-overall draft selection of Rasmus Dahlin. Dahlin’s sky-high potential as a top defenseman in the NHL for years to come gave Buffalo fans hope for future success.

Other young pieces, such as Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner make this team extremely competitive and fun to watch.

The Rangers controlled the pace of the game for the most part. They outshot the Sabres in each period and 44-29 for the game. However, this game was all about Carter Hutton, Buffalo’s new starting goaltender and on the special teams.

Less than seven minutes into the first period, the Sabres were on the power play and found themselves in a 2-on-1 rush down the ice. Ristolainen fed the puck to Conor Sheary, who rifled a wristhot past Lundqvist to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead.

Replays showed the Sabres had six men on the ice when Casey Mittlestadt created the scoring chance with a backhand pass from the right board to Ristolainen. But the officials missed the play and the goal stood.

Sheary would score on the power play again in the second period, this time less than two minutes in, as the Sabres executed a perfect tic-tac-toe display of passing.

Eichel found Reinhart on the left side at the front of the net and Reinhart patiently waited for Sheary to position himself on the other side. Reinhart delivered a perfect pass across the crease to Sheary, who wasted no time beating Lundqvist with a one-timer to double Buffalo’s lead.

Despite trailing 2-0, the Rangers still created grade-A chances in that middle frame. They had 14 shots on goal in that period, six of them on the power play.

Their best chance came on a three-man breakaway that led to a golden scoring opportunity for Brett Howden. But Hutton was up to the task and made a sliding save on Howden to keep the Rangers off the board.

Late in the third period, however, Howden was able to cash in on a rebound in front of the net for his first NHL goal, which sliced Buffalo’s lead in half.

The Rangers threw everything they had at Hutton, but he shut the door on every chance. Eichel scored an empty-netter with two seconds left in regulation to ice the game and preserve the Sabres’ 3-1 victory.

Lundqvist had another great game, with 26 saves and 28 shots, but Hutton stole the show with his 43-save performance. Special teams also hurt the Rangers in this game, as they gave up two power play goals.

Less than 24 hours after their defeat in Buffalo, the Rangers were back in action in Carolina to take on the Hurricanes. Alexandar Georgiev, Lundqvist’s backup, made his first start of the season. He impressed late last year in his short sample of games and won the backup position in the preseason.

The Rangers got off to a sizzling start, as they scored twice in the first six minutes, courtesy of Jimmy Vesey and Chris Kreider. Vesey’s goal came 49 seconds into the game. But Carolina had a strong response, as Warren Foegele and Jordan Martinook scored to pull the Hurricanes into a 2-2 tie by the end of the first.

Vesey again opened the scoring with a quick goal in the second, less than three minutes in, to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead. But the Canes responded again, as off a 4-on-3 penalty kill, a long pass from Jaccob Slavin and chip ahead from Foegele set Jordan Staal loose on a breakaway, and the Carolina veteran finished it off with a vicious wrister over Georgiev's blocker.

Buchnevich gave the Rangers the lead once again in the second when he stuffed home a rebound on a power play, but the Hurricanes tied it back up in the final seconds of the period.

In the final minute, Georgiev left his crease to try and clear a puck out of the corner. His clearing attempt went right to Micheal Ferland at the point, and Ferland flipped a soft, stoppable shot over Georgiev's shoulder as he raced back to his net, making it a 4-4 game.

Kreider gave the Rangers the lead right back at 4:26 of the third period, but Carolina’s Lucas Wallmark answered 35 seconds later. For the fourth time in the game, the Rangers squandered a lead.

The Hurricanes ended up taking their first lead of the game with 9:16 remaining, as the second overall pick in this past draft, Andrei Svechnikov, deflected a Justin Faulk shot in front of the net. Foegele scored his second of the game 47 seconds later to extend the lead to 7-5.

Teuvo Teravainen iced the game with a final-minute empty-netter. After leading 2-0, 3-2, 4-3, and 5-4, the Rangers ultimately fell to the Hurricanes by a score of 8-5.

Georgiev did not have his best game, giving up seven goals on 39 shots. But the defense didn’t help him out, as well as the ineffective special teams. The team’s 0-3-0 start could be pointed to those very reasons.

The Rangers will have a few days off to regroup before heading back home for three games against the San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche.

SportsFelix MalamudComment