Thursday night in Glendale, AZ the Rangers kick off the Alain Vigneault Era when they skate against the Coyotes in the 2013-14 season opener. The game will mark the start of the 88th season of Rangers hockey, as well as start a season-opening nine-game road trip with a new head coach, but without injured forward Carl Hagelin and---at least to start---injured team captain Ryan Callahan. It will be a challenging way to kick off a new campaign, especially with games against the Kings, Sharks, Ducks, and Blues immediately following the Coyotes clash on Thursday.
After a 1-5-0 pre-season in which Vigneault went out of his way to give most of the players in training camp several looks before deciding their fates, the new coach has quickly settled on his defense pairings and forward line combinations, stating that his preference is to show patience and see how things work out before quickly scuttling them. Vigenault has said that he already sees some chemistry building on his top line of Brad Richards-Derek Stepan-Rick Nash, and he believes that since early in camp the trio of Benout Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello has clicked. But questions still remain among the Top Six up front, mainly how will Richards adapt to moving to the left wing from center, and is Stepan (the Rangers top scorer a year ago) ready to assume No. 1 center duties after missing all of training camp and the pre-season? Add to the list of questions, how much will the team miss Callahan---who will not play Thursday, but could return soon from shoulder surgery---and Hagelin---who is out at least ten games after being placed on the long-term injury list?
Brian Boyle will anchor the third line with veteran Taylor Pyatt on his left side and impressive rookie Jesper Fast on the right. How the 21 year-old Fast assimilates in his first NHL game will be an interesting subplot Thursday, though the young Swede certainly showed no signs of awe in four pre-season contests while beating out Chris Kreider, Danny Kristo, and Oscar Lindberg among others for a spot on the opening night roster. Vigneault is extremely impressed with Fast. Now it's time to see if the youngster is ready to compete on a regular basis at this level.
The fourth line of J.T. Miller-Dominic Moore-Derek Dorsett should see some playing time because it combines toughness with defensive awareness and some offensive skill. Miller tied for the team lead with two pre-season goals and impressed after a hamstring injury early in camp. Moore will be one of the Rangers primary penalty killers, with Boyle, Stepan, Dorsett and perhaps Fast seeing time on the PK, as well.
The Rangers return their six top defensemen in 2013-14 with Vigneault pairing Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto, and John Moore with Anton Stralman. Staal, like Miller, had two pre-season goals, and looked outstanding at both ends of the ice in exhibition play. He seems to be over his frightening eye injury of last March, and seems poised to have a big-time season. Watch the defensemen closely as Vigneault is eager to have them join the play more and help start the offense by outmanning the opporition on the puck in the neutral zone.
Though they were outscored 22-9 in the pre-season, expect the Rangers to play much more sound defense in front of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist now that the games count, and expect the goal production to rise once the players fully grasp Vigneault's offensive system.
The Rangers opponent in the opener, the Phoenix Coyotes, has a new owner and a commitment to return to the post-season after finishing tenth in the Western Conference a year ago. Phoenix was 4-2-1 in the pre-season, and there are many good vibes now that it seems the team is settled in Arizona, with no threats of a move for the first time in recent memory. Rugged captain Shane Doan---who has played 1,246 games with the franchise---still anchors this team, with new addition Mike Ribeiro---the NHL's 10th-leading scorer with 49 points for Washington last season---brought in over the summer to help fortify a middling offense. Interestingly much of the Coyotes offense comes from its back end as defenseman Keith Yandle (10-20-30) led the 'Yotes in scoring a year ago, while young David Rundblad led the team in pre-season scoring with seven points (0-7-7). 21 year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson was the team leader with 21 assists last season, while averaging better than 25 minutes of ice-time while playing on the Phoenix blueline.
Mike Smith inked a six-year contract over the summer and will start in goal on opening night against the Rangers. Since the start of the 2011-12 season no goalie has recorded more shutouts than Smith (13) in the NHL, though he is coming off an up-and-down 2013 campaign. Often in his career with Phoenix, Dallas, and Tampa Bay Smith has proven a tough nut to crack for the Rangers, though they did beat hime twice---by one goal each time---two years ago.
Phoenix will play without rugged Paul Bissonnette---who is serving an NHL-inposed suspension---and veteran defenseman Rotislav Klesla, who is on Injured Reserve.