On Opening Night of the 2019-20 season, the fans who packed Madison Square Garden had come to get their first glimpse of some of the Rangers' new weapons in action - and what they got was a sizzling display of firepower in the midst of a back-and-forth hockey game. Then a blue-collar player stepped up and scored a blue-collar goal and won the thing.
Brett Howden's putback with 4:09 to play snapped the final tie of a wild Opening Night at the Garden and propelled the Rangers to a 6-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets to start their 2019-20 season on Thursday night. The 21-year-old center's goal off a faceoff was the decisive blow in a game in which the Rangers held three separate one-goal leads over the opening 40 minutes, then had to stage a third-period comeback to win it.
"It felt like an Opening Night - a little crazy," said Henrik Lundqvist. "Back and forth, a lot of emotions, great atmosphere in the building. It was a lot of fun. It was a battle, back and forth.
The goaltender added: "And the new guys look pretty good."
In the end, this game will be remembered for the four new guys who were making their long-awaited Rangers debuts on Thursday night, with 18-year-old No. 2 pick Kaapo Kakko becoming the first player born in the 21st Century to play for the Rangers, and Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba providing a lion's share of the firepower display. Panarin scored a power-play goal and tacked on an assist, while Trouba not only racked up a goal and a pair of helpers against his old club, but also showed a shrewd side by using his knowledge of his former team very much against them.
But all that is to say nothing of some of the Rangers who were back for another season. Lundqvist, the Rangers' Opening Night starter for the 14th consecutive season, made 43 saves for win No. 450 of his NHL career, while Marc Staal scored the first goal of 2019-20 on a wraparound and Brendan Smith scored the shorthanded empty-netter that sealed matters.
And prior to Howden's winner, the Rangers' shiny-new top line of Panarin, Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich had their fingerprints all over their team's first four goals, Zibanejad conducting the show and finishing with a goal and two assists.
When it was put to David Quinn that Zibanejad seemed to pick up right where he left off from last year's breakout season, the Head Coach replied, "That, and then some. He just did everything for us tonight."
Eleven different Rangers went home with points out of this one, including Libor Hajek's first NHL assist in his sixth NHL game. The Panarin-Zibanejad-Buchnevich line finished the night a combined plus-10.
Blake Wheeler scored twice for Winnipeg, and Nikolai Ehlers had three assists. Those two and their center, Mark Scheifele, combined to put 21 shots on Lundqvist's goal.
Kyle Connor's power-play goal 2:41 into the third period gave the Jets their first lead of the evening after they had swiftly erased three separate Ranger advantages - but two minutes after that is when the Jets were undone by their former teammate.
Just off the Rangers' bench, Trouba took a D-to-D pass from Hajek near his own blue line and surveyed his options. After a beat, he whipped a pass through the middle of the neutral zone for Zibanejad, who moved in and beat Connor Hellebuyck (26 saves) with a backhand over the blocker.
It appeared that the seas simply had parted and Trouba took what he saw. But the former Jet knew exactly what he was looking for.
"I actually kind of remember that we got caught a couple times last year, we'd get passes up the middle … because they like to pinch the wingers on the boards," said Trouba, who spent his first six NHL seasons in Winnipeg. "So if you kind of hang a center high and not roll him low, sometimes he'll get lost up there. So (Zibanejad) kind of just got lost, kind of planted back there, and I just found him up the middle. He did the rest.
"It was something I looked for. I knew. Because that's what I got caught on a lot when I was there."
All this seemed like ages after Staal had opened the season's scoring 11:35 in, at the end of a give-and-go with Zibanejad and a wraparound through Hellebuyck's pads. "I scored one like that like 10 years ago," Staal said. "It's been a while since I've tried a wraparound."
After Zibanejad drew a power play near the end of the first period, Panarin cashed it in 27 seconds into the second by whipping home a rebound of Zibanejad's shot. Trouba picked up his first as a Ranger six minutes later, just as a Winnipeg bench minor expired, blasting a rolling puck crossbar and in.
Neither team, though, could push its lead to a pair, and with a 4-4 game winding down to the final minutes, Howden beat Adam Lowry on an offensive-zone draw, then won body position on a player who has two inches and 15 pounds on him. It allowed him to pick up the rebound of Jesper Fast's shot, swing it to his backhand and scoop it home.
That sent both the players and the Garden crowd into delirium, and it sent the Rangers to 1-0-0 on the new season. They'll continue it on Saturday night in Ottawa, after which they will play only one game in a span of 11 days - a Saturday afternoon Garden match against the Edmonton Oilers, by which time everyone on this Ranger team will have at least a couple games under their belt.
One certain thing is, they'll be looking forward to coming home.
"You miss this, you miss it, definitely," Zibanejad said of playing at the Garden. "Just hearing the crowd in the beginning there, and after all the goals, it was unbelievable. I feel like there's something extra, something special here. I can tell they feel it too."