Take one look at how the New York Rangers are playing right now and there is no question that there is no lingering hangover from last spring when the Blueshirts came within one win of reaching their second straight Stanley Cup Final. As the coaches and players have said often already this fall, the team has turned the page on falling short of its stated goal last spring.
That said, the Rangers first game against the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, Thursday night at Amalie Arena, is bound to conjure up some intense feelings in the Blueshirts since it was the very same Lightning which beat the Rangers 2-0 in Game Seven of the 2014 Eastern Conference Final, ending a very special Rangers’ season.
“Everybody in that room knows that’s the team that eliminated us from going to the Stanley Cup Final again,” stated Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault following practice Wednesday. “It’s a big game for us. I expect our guys to be highly motivated and ready to go tomorrow.”
The Rangers are off to a fast start this season, after winning the President’s Trophy as the league’s top regular season team a year ago. New York is 14-2-2 with 30 points already out of the gate, and has won nine games in a row, with a chance to equal the franchise record of ten consecutive victories with a win Thursday against the Lightning.
Coming off last spring’s bitter and disappointing end to a memorable season, the Rangers seemed to have steeled themselves for another long run in 2015-16.
“Any time you can bank points, like we’re doing here, you’re happy about it and it’s huge,” explained Rick Nash. “When you’re streaking like this I think you just try and stick to what’s working. We’re playing a simple style and capitalizing on our chances, and getting great goaltending.”
The Rangers have met, and stared down, all challenges and challengers so far this season; but what will it be like to go head to head with the team that handed them the first Game Seven loss in franchise history on home ice at Madison Square Garden?
“We’re aware who they are and what happened last year,” said alternate captain Derek Stepan. “But you move on; and this is a big road trip. We’ve got to be ready to go.”
Added Nash, “I think no matter what, for us guys that were here, we’ll always have that history. But it’s a new season, and you know at the end Tampa will be there; so this is a measuring stick game for sure.”
In their last visit to Tampa’s Amalie Arena, the Rangers skated to a must-win 7-3 victory over the Lightning in Game Six, forcing that decisive seventh game of the conference final three nights later at MSG. That night in Tampa Derick Brassard recorded a Hat Trick and totaled five points, while both Nash and J.T. Miller produced four-point nights.
Henrik Lundqvist will start in goal for the Rangers on Thursday against the Lightning, while defenseman Dan Boyle shifts back into the lineup, replacing Dylan McIlrath, after being a healthy scratch in Sunday’s 4-3 home-ice win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.