The New York Rangers will begin their 90th anniversary season as a franchise Thursday night at Madison Square Garden when they host the crosstown rival Islanders.
After an early exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, a first-round loss to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers aim to get back on track in the Eastern Conference.
Last spring marked the first time under coach Alain Vigneault, who is entering his fourth season at the helm, the Blueshirts failed to advance in the postseason. They had been to the conference finals in three of the previous four years before last postseason’s premature elimination, including a Stanley Cup Final berth in 2014.
Here are three keys for the Rangers this season as they look to prove last year was an aberration.
The Blueshirts were overworked in the defensive zone last season. While star goalie Henrik Lundqvist saved 92% of the shots he saw, he still was saddled with 21 losses.
Last season marked the most goals Lundqvist has given up since the 2009-10 season, and the departure of Keith Yandle to the Florida Panthers won’t help. The defense must help fend off opponents. Look for Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein to lead that effort this season.
Left winger Rick Nash had a disappointing season for the Rangers last year.
The 2014-15 campaign was fantastic for the 2002 top overall pick as he scored 42 goals and assisted on 27 more. His numbers last season almost seem as if they came from a completely different player, scoring 15 goals and making 21 assists.
Nash needs to take more shots and reevaluate his game in order to be the player New York needs him to be.
Use the youth
The Rangers acquired some serious talent in the offseason. They welcome 23-year-old rookie Jimmy Vesey, the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner as the NCAA’s top player, after winning a bidding war for his services. The Harvard product should have the chance to contribute right away.
Center Mika Zibanejad, who the Blueshirts acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Rangers leading goal scorer Derick Brassard, also joins the mix. He recorded 51 points last season (21 goals and 30 assists). Do not be surprised if the 23-year-old has a breakout season in the Big Apple.