For the first time since 2007, the New York Rangers on Thursday will open a season at Madison Square Garden, and they will do so against their in-city rival, the New York Islanders.
Thanks to a three-year arena renovation project that would bleed into October and some odd NHL scheduling, the Rangers haven't started at home since goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's third season. But that's in the past, and whether beginning a season away from home was good or bad for the club, the team is ready to turn the page and look to the future.
“Something I think our group really needs to focus on is this is a new year,” Derek Stepan said to the Daily News on Wednesday. “We're not gonna go back to seasons past. We've done everything in seasons past: We've had great starts; we've had terrible starts; we've made it deep in the playoffs; we've ended short in the playoffs. This is a new year. We're gonna try to avoid talking about years past, but if you're really talking about the feeling in this room, I think the biggest thing we've all been saying for weeks is we just want to get this season started.”
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A new season brings new faces for both the Rangers and Islanders; Mika Zibanejad is the big name among those making their Rangers debut while high-price free-agent acquisition Andrew Ladd will play his first game for the Islanders. Left winger Jimmy Vesey, the prized college free agent many teams coveted, will make his NHL debut with the Rangers.
Zibanejad was acquired from the Ottawa Senators during the offseason for fellow center Brassard and expects to find himself in high-leverage situations for his new club.
“When we're up by one with two minutes left, one minute left, or we're down by one and try to get a goal, I want to be out there for every different situation,” Zibanejad told the Daily News. “I think I got a taste of that last year and it's something I want to evolve to a lot more this year.”
Ladd brings leadership, experience and a Stanley Cup to Brooklyn after signing a seven-year, $38.5 million deal with a team that lost key players Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen to free agency. The left winger is expected to start his Islanders career playing on a line with center John Tavares.
With Tavares playing at the World Cup, Ladd didn't get much time in the preseason to work with him, so there could be an adjustment period for both players in the early going.
“(It) will be good just getting to know where Johnny's going to be,” Ladd told Newsday. “All players are different, especially offensively. He's probably a guy who wants a little more space, take guys one-on-one in the corner, stuff like that. Just getting a feel for where he's going to be in certain situations and just have the ability to talk it out from there.”
The Rangers will be without defenseman Kevin Klein, who is out with a back strain.
Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak is dealing with an illness and his status for the opener is up in the air. Center Anders Lee blocked a shot in practice Wednesday and he could miss the opener as well, although that has yet to be determined.
Both the Rangers and Islanders have playoff aspirations in a very tough Metropolitan Division and even though it's just the first of 82 games, it's already two important points up for grabs. And if the Rangers want to erase the past, starting with a win against a team that beat them in all four meetings last season would go a long way toward changing the future.
“We all know that last year they had our number,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault told the Daily News. “This season is a new season and I think everyone's anxious to get going here.”