Two hours before the puck dropped on Saturday’s preseason finale against the Islanders, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant repeated a mantra that is atop everyone’s mind during exhibition season.
“I’m sure both coaches hope nobody gets hurt,” he said.
And despite a brief scare when Sammy Blais left the match with an upper-body injury, the Rangers indeed left UBS Arena unscathed, with Gallant saying Blais “should be fine” following the 3-1 loss to the Isles. The overriding conclusion from the contest: Everyone is happy to see the end of the preseason.
“Not really, to be honest with you,” Gallant said, when asked if he got much out of Saturday’s game, in which Kaapo Kakko scored the lone goal for the Rangers, compared to the one before it. “I’m glad it’s over and the players are glad it’s over, too.”
Kakko’s emergence on the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad — he had three goals in the last two preseason games — is one of the stories heading into the opener. The Finn got some time on that line last season, and after the Rangers rotated through candidates in training camp, he looks like the clubhouse leader to start the season there.
“He had a great goal tonight, he probably should’ve had a couple more goals tonight,” Gallant said. “But overall he’s been real good at training camp. It’s good for that kid.”
If the answer to that question is starting to emerge, then the answer to the question of the same position on the second line is still a bit of a mystery. Jimmy Vesey featured to the right of Vincent Trocheck on Saturday, but others including Vitali Kravtsov have seen extensive time there during camp.
A few weeks ago, the job looked like Kravtsov’s to lose. The Russian didn’t play in Saturday’s game, though, and while he’s a near lock to make the NHL roster, it doesn’t look as though he’s guaranteed to play in Tuesday’s opener.
Last season, Andrew Copp — a trade-deadline acquisition — ended up being the player who the Rangers rode in that slot alongside Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome (since replaced by Trocheck) during their playoff run. Now, it’s about finding the right partner for Panarin and Trocheck, as well as those two working out chemistry of their own.
“It’s all about real games,” Gallant said. “Now you don’t expect them to go out there and bust their ass every shift, compete and block shots and that. Trocheck’s a new player trying to find his way with our team.”
The game against the Islanders was played with a bit more intensity than a normal preseason match, particularly when a hard Alexander Romanov hit on Trocheck earned him a charging call early in the third period, but it was still ultimately a game of no consequence. Both teams will play at least 82 more times before suffering another meaningless exhibition again.
“Definitely nice to get the regular season going,” Adam Fox said. “Preseason’s good to work out the kinks, but you want the games to really matter. Obviously it’s exciting to be getting to that point now.”
“It’s high,” Mika Zibanejad said of the excitement level. “It’s something that we’ve been looking forward to for some weeks now, getting back here. It’s just a good feeling, everybody starting.”
All told, the Rangers on Saturday looked like a team whose eyes were on Tuesday.
And for maybe the only time in a demanding schedule, this was a night where looking ahead wasn’t just forgivable, but encouraged by everyone involved.
“I know our team’s a lot better than that,” Gallant said. “We’ll come out to play and get ready for Tuesday.”