WASHINGTON — The Rangers beefed up, you might have heard, but their success this season will still in large measure be determined by the talent-laden top two lines.
So if you learn that in Wednesday night’s opener here against the Capitals that neither Mika Zibanejad nor Artemi Panarin was credited with a shot, that the top six forwards that also feature Chris Kreider, Kaapo Kakko, Ryan Strome and Alexis Lafreniere combined for a sum of six shots at even strength, how would you think the Blueshirts had fared?
Correct. Final score in a game toward which the Rangers had pointed to and built toward for months, 5-1 against.
When it was over, the team took care not to beat itself up. Oh and by the way, there was no beating up of Tom Wilson. There was no beating up of anyone in a game in which the Blueshirts did attempt to set a physical tone — step right up, Sammy Blais — but never veered out of control.
A stat to chew on as head coach Gerard Gallant started the Zibanejad line rather than the fourth line including Ryan Reaves: No. 75 was on the ice at the same time as Mr. Wilson for a sum of 0:09.
But here is a more pertinent stat: Trailing 1-0 after the first period on the first of three Washington power-play goals and then 2-0 at 12:38 on another PPG and 3-0 just 24 seconds later, the Blueshirts went the final 18:41 of the second period without an even-strength shot on goal. They went 13:33 without a shot of any kind from 3:50 to 17:23, finishing with five for the middle 20 minutes.
After the match, after Gallant’s tenure had begun with a thud, the Blueshirts maintained that it hadn’t been as bad as the score — or your eyes — might have indicated. Zibanejad and Adam Fox both cited the few Grade A chances the club generated early before a cascade of undisciplined penalties that resulted in three Washington PPGs did them in.
“I think when it got to be 2-0 we got a little frustrated obviously in trying to chase,” said Zibanejad, who had three attempts. “We talked about it a bit, we kind of got away from our game. I don’t know if we were trying to get those two goals back as quick as possible and got impatient.”
Alex Georgiev got the surprise start in goal. It is always a surprise when a team’s No. 1 does not get the opening assignment. Gallant, in consultation with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, appears to have made the call in order to have Igor Shesterkin ready for Thursday’s Garden opener against the Stars, when the Blueshirts will be a tired team facing a fresh one.
Georgiev did not cost the Rangers the game — the Blueshirts did not score until Kreider’s artful power-play redirection at 9:13 of the third period brought the score to 4-1 — and he was victimized by a couple of bounces that the Blueshirts emphasized way more than required, but No. 40 was also unable to erase his teammates’ mistakes.
There was a method to this decision-making, but in some ways it’s kind of like Casey Stengel not starting Whitey Ford until the third game of the World Series in order that the lefty could pitch at the Stadium as the manager did in the 1960 seven-game loss to the Pirates.
Blais, who makes an impression when he hits much like the Islanders’ Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, was imposing at the start. And the Rangers did generate a couple of golden chances within the first six minutes, goaltender Vitek Vanecek denying Fox on the first shift and then Kakko just over five minutes into the match and soon after T.J. Oshie had given Washington the lead. But there was not much after that.
The Rangers were unable to generate off the rush. They were unable to generate off a cycle game. Their discipline broke down. They took too many penalties — “Way too many, too many bad penalties,” said Gallant — and while shorthanded for a total of a manageable 5:34, that number was low because of the Caps’ success on the man-advantage.
If you’re looking for silver linings in this cloud, it is that Kakko had a strong night in the offensive zone, recording five shots that included a couple of legit scoring chances, and that Lafreniere, much better as the game went on, had three shots on seven attempts.
It is hard to imagine a bigger thud out of the gate. The mandate now is not to be tougher against Dallas. It is to be better. Much better. That goes for the team. That goes for Zibanejad and Panarin. That goes for the top six.