RANGERS vs. DEVILS
Preseason Opening Night
Madison Square Garden
Wednesday is a night to roll out the welcome mat at Madison Square Garden: To welcome back Rangers Hockey, to welcome home Rangers fans, and to welcome a brand-new crop of Blueshirts who will go for a skate on Garden ice for the first time as Rangers.
Artemi Panarin. Kaapo Kakko. Jacob Trouba. Adam Fox. Vitali Kravtsov. Igor Shesterkin. Some veterans, some rookies, all among the group of players who will be lacing their skates in the home dressing room, and stepping out under the MSG lights in a Blueshirt, for the very first time. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Brady Skjei -- those guys are back, too, to suit up for the first time in 2019-20.
It will be a sneak preview for Ranger fans, a first up-close home-ice look at a new era on Broadway. For David Quinn, it will be the Head Coach's first opportunity to get his troops tuned up for NHL game speed while continuing the evaluation work that will shape his bench for Opening Night on this very same ice sheet on Oct. 3.
"It'll be exciting to play a game," Quinn said after the Rangers practiced in two groups in Westchester on Tuesday. "Obviously you want to start seeing guys in game situations against different people. And it'll be fun to kind of kick the season off."
"You look around, there's a lot of smiles," added Zibanejad. "It's just fun to get everything started."
They'll get it all started with five first-round draft choices among their top six forwards in Wednesday night's lineup, and an eye-catching mix on what will be the top line for this game: The established newcomer, the returning leading scorer, and the team's highest draft pick in a half-century. Kakko will introduce himself to the Garden on Wednesday playing on the right wing opposite Panarin, with Zibanejad in the middle, certainly an intriguing combination that comes with one caveat.
"Don't read into it," Quinn cautioned on Tuesday. "Buchie's going right back in there" -- which is to say, Kakko is both getting a look on that right wing and keeping the spot warm for Pavel Buchnevich, who Quinn said has earned a place alongside Zibanejad and Panarin once the start of the season inches closer.
On the heels of his monster cameo at the Traverse City Tournament (three third-period assists, then the overtime winner against Minnesota's prospects), Kakko's performance at this early stage of Training Camp, Quinn said, "just confirms what we already know about him: He's an elite talent."
Asked on Tuesday if he is excited to play at the Garden for the first time, Kakko replied, "Of course I am."
"Not so much," he said.
"I'm curious to see him in an NHL game. And obviously it'll be nice to play with those guys," Quinn said. "But there's nothing wrong with playing with Chytil and Kreider either."
Those could well be the future linemates of the Rangers' 2019 first-round pick, but for now, Filip Chytil (2017 first-rounder) will wait for the weekend to make his preseason debut, while on Wednesday, Kreider (2009 first-rounder) will be the veteran on the second line with a pair of youngsters, second-year center Lias Andersson (2017 first-rounder) and rookie Vitali Kravtsov (2018 first-rounder).
While Quinn sees what players and combinations thrive up front, he already has a notion about the chemistry on the blue line, namely in top duo Brady Skjei and Jacob Trouba, who will pair off at least to begin the preseason. Skjei, entering his fourth full season with the Rangers, and Trouba, who arrived in a summer trade with Winnipeg, have been close friends since their teenage years, playing together at the U.S. National Team Development Program -- though not regularly, Trouba said on Tuesday, as a pair.
Still, "we know how to approach each other," Trouba said. "Talking on the bench, you don't really have to be on pins and needles trying to talk to someone not knowing how they'll react; I know how he's going to react. He knows what I'm thinking, I know what he's thinking when he wants to talk to me. So that's a different level of comfort that you normally don't get playing with a new partner."
After those two, Long Island product and lifelong Ranger fan Adam Fox, who has skated for Harvard at the Garden more than once, will be partnered in his first Ranger game there with Libor Hajek, who returns to the same rink against the same opponent where, back on March 9, he scored his first NHL goal, then suffered the separated shoulder that cut short his 2018-19 season. Brendan Smith and Brandon Crawley will round out the defense, while Trouba, Fox and Skjei all saw time in Tuesday's practice among the two power-play units in which Quinn felt he saw some "instant chemistry."
Alexandar Georgiev and Shesterkin will share the crease against the Devils, Shesterkin's first outing since he played two games in Traverse City in which he steadily gained comfort in the nets. "I'm pleased with his progress," Quinn said. "Ben (Allaire) loves coaching him, and I love how he competes. There is a learning curve for a goalie in particular, because the angles are different, the rink is different, there is a big adjustment for a goalie. But I think he's handled it well and he continues to progress."
New Jersey opened its preseason with split-squad games on Monday night, losing in Montreal and beating the Bruins in Newark on an overtime goal by Jack Hughes, who will not be in the Devils' traveling party over the Hudson River on Wednesday -- so having the top two picks of the 2019 Draft on the same NHL rink will have to wait for another day.
All that is far from the Rangers' focus as they drop the puck on preseason: Less than two weeks, and plenty of work, remain before Opening Night.
"The competition is real here. These games mean an awful lot," Quinn said. "We're looking forward to seeing what these guys can do."
10 Panarin -- 93 Zibanejad -- 45 Kakko
20 Kreider -- 50 Andersson -- 74 Kravtsov
14 McKegg -- 65 O'Regan -- 71 Jones
38 Haley -- 15 Nieves -- 63 Elmer
76 Skjei -- 8 Trouba
43 Hajek -- 23 Fox
46 Crawley -- 42 Smith
The Rangers won both preseason meetings with the Devils last year, including the opener in Newark behind two goals from Lias Andersson, one shorthanded and one on a power play.