The Rangers opened up the 2013-14 campaign with a 4-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena Thursday night, but Marc Staal's impactful play at both ends of the ice should give new head coach Alain Vigneault much hope for what could lie ahead the rest of the season.
Playing in his first regular season contest since suffering a frightening eye injury last March 5th, Staal not only scored the Rangers' only goal, he confidently joined the rush throughout, played a physical game along the walls, and made several key defensive plays in his own zone.
Staal roofed a left wing shot over Mike Smith's shoulder at 3:38 of the second period, tying the game at the time 1-1 with a power play goal assisted by Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. He had started the game in strong fashion with a prime scoring chance on the opening shift, and then later in the first period smoothly broke up a Coyotes 2-on-1 rush as the only Ranger back in his own end of the ice. On his next shift Staal threw a bone-rattling check along the boards to further illustrate all facets of his game.
Despite Staal's strong play, the Rangers were often sloppy in their first game under Vigneault, and the Coyotes rode a strong 24-save performance by Smith and Radim Vrbata's fifth career Hat Trick to the home-ice win. Henrik Lundqvist finished with 28 saves for the Rangers.
Not so coincidentally each time the Rangers took a penalty in the first two periods, the momentum swung towards the home team and shortly thereafter the Coyotes capitalized by scoring goals---even though the Rangers killed off both penalties. Thirty seconds after the visitors killed off Benoit Pouliot's holding penalty just 66 seconds into the season, Phoenix opened the scoring with Kyle Chipchura netting one from out in front. Then with the score tied 1-1 in the second period, Vrbata swept a puck past Lundqvist at 7:05, a mere 21 seconds after the Rangers had killed off John Moore's hooking penalty.
Between those goals was Staal's score, as well as surges of very strong, and creative, play in the offensive zone by the Rangers. Smith, though, was extremely sharp, turning aside the visitors' best chances time and again. At 6:42 of the opening period Pouliot was robbed as Smith made a scintillating sprawling save off Pouliot's open one-timer from right wing following a gorgeous tic-tac-toe passing sequence started by Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. Later in the first period Smith made a lunging glove save on a Brad Richards power play blast, set up by a sweet cross ice pass by Stepan.
Smith was a bit lucky in the second period when Zuccarello beat him cleanly with a wicked snap shot from right wing off the rush, but the puck hit the crossbar and bounced out of harm's way at 14:11. The Coyotes' netminder was not lucky minutes later; he was just really good in stoning Ryan McDonagh point blank from the slot.
Vrbata rewarded his goaltender by scoring a power play goal at 1:10 of the third period, giving the Coyotes a two-goal lead. Vrbata deflected a Keith Yandle slap shot past Lundqvist after Antoine Vermette cleanly won an offensive zone face off. Six minutes later Vrbata completed his hat trick by stuffing a loose puck past Lundqvist at 7:13 to put the Rangers in a 4-1 hole.
McDonagh had received a major scare early in the first period when a Vrbata shot struck him in the face, seemingly in the chin or jaw. The top-pair defenseman spent ten minutes worth of the first period in the dressing room before returning to action before the opening period was complete.
That brand of gritty play was often evident in other areas of the Rangers' game Thursday night, as well. On two different occasions Brian Boyle threw his body in front of shots for key blocks while he was without a stick. And despite taking that shot to the face, McDonagh had four blocked shots in the game.
Rookie Jesper Fast made his NHL debut for the Rangers, and though he did not receive much ice-time, he played a very smart two-way game. Fast showed hustle and smarts, and even slipped a tricky backhander on net in the second period.
The latter stages of the third period saw a pair of fights as Derek Dorsett of the Rangers first battled Chris Brown at 13:05, then at 17:56 Nash took exception to Martin Hanzel's hit on Stepan and dropped the gloves for the first time as a Ranger.
The Rangers will now have three days to work on their game before returning to action Monday in Los Angeles against the Kings.