After a four-month summer break, three weeks of training camp and six exhibition games, things start to get real for the Rangers tonight as it begins its 90th season of play against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden.
"For us, getting an opportunity -especially to start against the Islanders, the atmosphere that's going to be in there, it'll be a lot of fun," head coach Alain Vigneault said of opening the season at home for the first time since the 2007-08 season. "Last year, [the Islanders] had our number. This season is a new season and I think everybody is anxious to get this going here. Enough practice, we've been at it now for close to five days and it's time to get going."
It's been a long summer for New York, its longest in fact since the conclusion of the 2010-11 season. While there are summer skates and charity leagues, several players on Wednesday said they're itching to get the real thing going.
"Really when the schedule comes out, you start itching to get the puck dropped," Derek Stepan said. "I think this week especially, I think guys are just - we've had a good week of practice and I think guys are ready to drop the puck and play some hockey."
The Rangers will be without defenseman Kevin Klein, who underwent an MRI on Tuesday for back spasms. Vigneault said it was nothing serious, but enough to keep the defenseman out of the lineup against the Islanders, and he is listed as day-to-day.
The Blueshirts will be led up front by the Mika Zibanejad line with Chris Kreider and rookie Pavel Buchnevich. The trio showed quick chemistry in the preseason and will also be leaned on on the power play. The Rangers' second line featured Derek Stepan between last year's leading scorer Mats Zuccarello and rookie Jimmy Vesey, while the third line has Kevin Hayes pivoting J.T. Miller and Rick Nash, who was named alternate captain earlier this week.
The fourth line is expected to be free agent signees Brandon Pirri between Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast.
With Klein out of the lineup, newcomer Nick Holden will be on the right side of Marc Staal. Captain Ryan McDonagh will skate with Dan Girardi, while Brady Skjei and Adam Clendening comprise the third pair.
Henrik Lundqvist is expected to make this 11th consecutive start on opening night, and by doing so, he would tie Ed Giacomin as the only two goaltenders in team history to start at least 11 season-opening games, and do it in consecutive seasons.
The Islanders, who won all four meetings against the Rangers a season ago, have new faces of its own. Out are Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, and in their place are Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and rookie Mat Barzal.
John Tavares is coming off a 33-goal, 70-point season, and is once again expected to carry the workload up front. The addition of Ladd, 30, adds scoring and grit to an Islanders forward group. The winger is coming off a 25-goal campaign split between Winnipeg and Chicago.
Thursday's matchup marks the second time the Rangers and Islanders open up a season, with the first resulting in a 2-2 tie on Oct. 3, 1997.
McDonagh said for those who were with the Rangers last season, Thursday is a chance to swing the tide back in the Rangers' favor after a down year a season ago against its cross-town rival.
"First game of the season, everybody is excited," McDonagh said. "It's the first one in a while where we've had our home opener here. I think we've got to take a little pride in that against a team that did well against us last year. For some of us who were here last year, we remember that, so we want to try and get off on the right foot and get a good start at home."
Rangers vs. Islanders
7 pm at Madison Square Garden
Coverage begins on MSG Network at 6 pm