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These are the Rangers when they skate. These are the Rangers when they compete. These are the Rangers when their marquee players set the pace.
These are the Rangers who dominated the Islanders, 5-0, at the Garden on Saturday night in a match that brought everyone off the ledge after an unduly stressful 48 hours following Thursday’s opening crash-and-burn against the very same opponent.
“The right words were spoken in the locker room.” Artemi Panarin said following Alex Georgiev’s 23-save shutout. “It was a good lesson learned for all of us.”
Panarin, who was uncharacteristically muted in the opener, scored twice while playing a dynamic game. Mika Zibanejad made a key play to set up Pavel Buchnevich for the goal at 2:12 of the first period that gave the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead. That was the first of two for No. 89, who has caught everyone’s attention with his work at camp that carried into this one.
The Rangers played with structure and a sense of purpose. They closed quickly and took away the Islanders’ time and space all over the ice. They were relentless and disciplined in pursuit of the puck, and were responsible with it when they gained possession. Hence, no odd-man rushes. Thus, a strong defensive posture.
And the Blueshirts were able to take advantage of the home matchup, David Quinn keeping the Chris Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich unit away from the annoyingly effective Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck line. If the coach sent a message between Games 1 and 2 both verbally and by mixing every combination both up front and on defense other than the Zibanejad combination, he also sent one when he sent out Brendan Lemieux, Brett Howden and Julien Gauthier to open the match.
“It was all about how we came back,” said Adam Fox, who partnered with Jack Johnson. “We didn’t want to overreact.”
The team that was allegedly too young and soft to play a team as experience and tough as the Islanders sure grew up in a hurry. Quinn, for one, gave credit to Jacob Trouba for the work he did in the room between the 4-0 defeat and this 5-0 victory.
“Jacob Trouba stood tall and played one of his best games as a Ranger,” the coach said. “But the stuff he did he did between the last game and tonight went a long way for us in putting us in the right mindset.
“I’ve got to give our leaders a bunch of credit.”
Buchnevich is on the last year of his contract under which he carries a $3.25 million cap hit. He will have only a year before he can become eligible for unrestricted free agency. With the advent of Alexis Lafreniere, who can and in fact did shift to right wing for this one; the presence of Kaapo Kakko, who scored on a one-timer; to the anticipated arrival from the KHL of Vitali Kravtsov, it appeared as if Buchnevich might price himself off Broadway. It seemed as if he would become expendable.
But at this moment, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that Buchnevich, the third senior Ranger behind Kreider and Zibanejad, is making himself indespensible. On the first line. On the power play. On the penalty-kill unit.
Moreover, there is a joy to his game that had seemed missing. Just as the taciturn man might be nicknamed, “Gabby,” there is a reason Quinn hung the moniker, “Captain Happy,” on Buchnevich.
“I just enjoy him as a guy. I love the guy,” Quinn said. “He’s working hard, he wants to get better, he’s coachable. He’s really growing up.
“I’m just so happy he’s getting rewarded statistically, but he’s doing all these other things he wasn’t doing two years ago. I mean, now he’s a penalty killer and who would have thought that? It’s just fun to watch people grow. I give him all the credit.”
Buchnevich’s opening goal on which he beat Ilya Sorokin — conscripted into his first NHL action after scheduled starter Semyon Varlamov took a shot up high during warmups — allowed the Rangers to breathe. Good things happened to a team that did not wait. Good things happened because of Buchnevich.
“It was a long summer and I worked on conditioning stuff because it was hard to skate because [COVID] was so bad,” Buchnevich said. “I just wanted to improve in every area. I think every player wants to get better.”
As Buchnevich was speaking, Panarin jumped in on the Zoom call.
“I told him to pass it to me,” No. 10 said. “Pass it to me.”
Panarin was giggling. So was Buchnevich. It was that kind of a night on Broadway.
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