On Monday, Mika Zibanejad was named the NHL's First Star of the season's opening week for his scalding start to 2019-20. This week, he will have to be really, really good in practice if he wants to defend his title.
At this early-season moment, the only thing that has been able to slow down Zibanejad and the Rangers' No. 1 line is the calendar: Having only just begun their 2019-20 schedule, the Rangers have arrived at the quirky part of it, six days off between this past Saturday's victory in Ottawa and this coming Saturday's Madison Square Garden matchup with the Edmonton Oilers. Then four more off days after that.
No one on the Rangers is complaining about it; no one would say it is particularly ideal so early in the season, either. So following a team day off on Sunday, the Rangers on Monday morning set about the business of making the most of a workweek with no games: They took the ice in Westchester for practice in two groups, first the defensemen going through some skills work mostly without pucks, then the forwards coming on along with the goaltenders. In all, their practice sessions pushed three hours and had the feel of Training Camp Part Two, a week or so after Training Camp was supposed to have been put to bed.
"Yeah, and it'll feel like Training Camp on Thursday and Friday I'm sure," said Marc Staal, "once we're at the end of the week and we're chomping at the bit to get back into a game."
Worrying about what can't be changed, though, is "wasted energy," in Zibanejad's words, and it isn't hard to locate the silver lining. "We still have a new group," Staal said, "it's not like we've been together for a long time and have a lot of chemistry and that type of thing. So it's not a bad thing to get more practice and more work in our systems and knowing what our jobs are, that kind of stuff. That's a positive we can take out of this week."
"You can really focus on some individual skills or positional skills going kind of like we did today," added David Quinn, "things that no matter what system you have, you've still got to be good in small areas within the system. And I think with this type of time, it gives you a chance to focus on those things."
If there is anyone who would be justified in dreading this type of time off right now, it is Zibanejad. He has come sprinting out of the gates with eight points, most by any NHL player in the first two games this season and only the sixth time in NHL history a player has begun a season with back-to-back four-point games. His hat trick in Ottawa on Saturday night was the third of his career, and his assist late in that game gave him his seventh career four-point night. He had one of them in his first 417 NHL games; the other six have come in his last 76 games.
"You want to keep going, but you try and turn everything into a positive," Zibanejad said on Monday. "Obviously it's been rolling, but I think it's been rolling for our entire line. The only thing really I'm thinking of is that as a line, we need more games together. And it's unbelievable to play with those two so far, and on that power play. We're having a lot of fun."
His line, with Artemi Panarin on the left and Pavel Buchnevich on the right, has combined for 14 points in their first two games as a unit, and at least one of them has made the scoresheet on nine of the 10 goals the Rangers have scored. The obvious flip side to all that production is whether the Rangers feel they need to see more of it from the rest of the lineup, to which Quinn answered on Monday: "Listen, it's two games. I feel like we will."
And about that power play: With Panarin-Zibanejad-Buchnevich joined by Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba on the top PP unit, the Rangers officially are 3-for-5 with man-advantages but for all practical purposes have scored four: Trouba's first goal as a Ranger came on a bomb from the blue line on Thursday against the Jets, who had Mathieu Perreault still sprinting from the penalty box and back into the play when the goal came.
Come Saturday, that power play gets a chance against an Edmonton team whose penalty kill finished 30th in the League last season, at 74.8 percent. The Oilers have killed eight of nine so far this year, but those numbers are sure to change by the time Connor McDavid and Co. reach the Garden: The Oilers have games on Long Island on Tuesday and in Newark Thursday, while the Rangers continue Training Camp: The Sequel while awaiting them on Saturday afternoon on Broadway.
Of all the silver linings for the Rangers find in that long break, near the top of their list is the fact they enter it carrying a 2-0 record.
"You don't get these opportunities during the season with this kind of break, really - the only breaks you get is All-Star and the bye week, but we're not here," Zibanejad said. "And we know it's a lot nicer to have this week when you have the first two wins out of the season."
"One thing we talked about going into the game (Saturday) was, you know, we're going to have to live with our effort and the result for the next week," Quinn said. "This week would be a lot longer if we didn't have the success we had in those two games."