Into the great unknown go the Rangers, into the Hub bubble of Toronto, one of 24 teams entered in the Great Stanley Cup Tournament of 2020, with a three-of-five coming up against their kissin’ cousins, the Candy Canes, for entry and invitation to the playoffs on the other side.
We’re saying there’s a chance.
It starts Monday at the rink in Tarrytown, Phase 3, Training Camp 2.0, whatever moniker it’s been assigned before the trek across the border and life inside. The Blueshirts, just three years from having almost been stripped to the studs, will drop the puck at 11 a.m.
And what is the over/under on David Quinn’s first outburst in four months and two days, since the Rangers were last on the ice, losing a 3-2 overtime game in Colorado that preceded the pause?
Training camp testing has a new meaning. It is not about a 3-mile run. It is about the coronavirus, which has made it necessary to be here in the middle of July. But this experiment undertaken by the league and its players is also about competition. It is about chasing the Stanley Cup.
For the Rangers, it is about winning 19 postseason games. More to the point, it is first about winning three games against Carolina, whom the Blueshirts swept four straight during the regular season and against whom their record is 10-2 over the last three seasons, 15-5 the last five years and 30-6 since the start of 2011-12.
We also should mention that while the Blueshirts indeed did win all four against the ’Canes — who recorded a .596 winning percentage with 81 points in 68 games to New York’s .564 with 79 points in 70 matches — their puck-possession numbers in three of those games translated into the worst, third-worst and seventh-worst performances of the season.
It was the goaltending, stupid, the same way as the difference has been goaltending for just about the entire decade.
Which leads us nicely into a handful of questions confronting the Rangers as they head into th is unique experience and a camp that is not meant to prepare the team for an 82-game marathon, but the specific three-of-five assignment against Carolina:
Who’s No. 1?
Quinn and the organization should enter into this with an open mind, but Igor Shesterkin is the incumbent who would need to be knocked off his perch in camp by Henrik Lundqvist, superlative this season against the ’Canes (3-0/2.33/.947) as he has been throughout his career. The depth that Alex Georgiev provides against injury/illness is critical.
The Rangers were a much better team with Shesterkin in net following his Jan. 6 promotion from the AHL, indeed going 16-6 immediately upon his arrival in New York. His ability to muffle shots that prevents second, third and fourth opportunities and his skill in moving the puck out of the zone, not just harm’s way, settled the team’s defensive structure.
Was this coincidence or not? In the three games with Lundqvist in net against the ’Canes, the Blueshirts were outshot by Carolina 132-68 and out-attempted 192-100. The one in which Shesterkin played, a 5-2 victory in Raleigh on Feb. 21, the shots were 36-29, New York, with the attempts in Carolina’s favor by 46-45.
The Rangers played their final nine games with just six defensemen on the roster following the deadline trade of Brady Skjei to — well, hello there, bud — Carolina. Signaling the absence of immediately available depth on the blue line, the club recalled only Libor Hajek and Darren Raddysh from Hartford to join the squad on this adventure. That makes eight in all for what could be a two-month grind. If injuries or the virus strike the blue line, well, this will be quick.
Picking up pep
The Rangers still have not been informed as to the length of Brendan Lemieux’s suspension he earned for his gratuitous head shot of Joonas Donskoi late in the third period of that final game in Colorado. We’re told that the sentence would have been four games in the regular season. So does that translate into one or two qualifying-round matches?
Chris Kreider, who missed the final six games with a broken foot, will slide back into his spot on the left with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Phil DiGiuseppe, who’d been the first-line seat-filler in Kid K’s absence, would probably then move down to either the third or fourth line.
By the way: Including the Feb. 28 match in Philadelphia in which Kreider broke his foot in the first period, the Blueshirts were 2-4-1 without No. 20, while scoring 15 even-strength goals in his absence. Zibanejad got six of them.
And this, in case you have forgotten: Zibanejad recorded 19 goals in the final 16 games on 63 shots for a shooting percentage of 30.2.
No, management has not yet been informed by the league whether the Garden’s tax clause will mean that the Rangers will be designated as the away club for each match and thus obligated to make the first change.