NEW YORK – The grade of last season’s trade that brought Keith Yandle to the Rangers is still incomplete. It can’t be measured until the end of the season – until the Rangers either raise the Stanley Cup, or suffer another year of heartbreak. It won’t be answered until the star defenseman either re-signs in July, or leaves in free agency.
For one night, he sure made his current team smile when he scored a power-play goal in the third period against his former team, as part of the Rangers’ 4-1 win over the Coyotes Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
“It was a little bit emotional, but after the first couple shifts it was a fun game to play in,” Yandle said of facing the Coyotes for the first time after spending nine seasons there. “Especially getting your first goal of the season, it’s always fun. Scoring against your old team, the big thing is getting the win. It’s one of those things, it’s nice to get the win.”
The man he was traded for, 20-year-old blue-chip prospect Anthony Duclair, was held off the scoresheet in 17:31 of ice time in his return to New York, where he played 18 promising games last year after forcing his way onto the Opening Night roster thanks to a sparkling training camp.
He was traded because the Rangers put all their chips in the middle of the table. Duclair is a prospect. One with a bright future, but a prospect nonetheless. Yandle, according to then-general manager Glen Sather, was the missing piece to the puzzle.
“A lot of pucks got shot at me when I was doing the pre-game [TV] interview [during warmups],” Yandle said with a smile. [Coyotes captain Shane] Doan probably shot every puck they had down there at me. I saw them [Wednesday] night, so I got to say hi to them and have dinner with them.”
“He’s one of those guys that every young guy wants to hang out with him, and every old guy wants to be like him,” said Doan, who spent nine seasons as Yandle’s teammate. “He’s a special guy, such a unique personality that’s contagious and fun. People gravitate towards him.”
Rangers fans will gravitate towards Yandle if he helps bring the team their first Stanley Cup since 1994. The jury is still out. The deliberations are ongoing.
“One-hundred percent, for sure,” said forward Rick Nash when asked if the team felt extra motivation to win for a teammate facing his former team. “When a guy like him is a franchise guy there, plays a lot of years, he did a lot for the organization and for growing the game of hockey in Phoenix. For him to play against his old friends and his old team, it’s always important that he gets the win.”
“He spent a lot of time there, it’s not another game on the schedule for him when you’re playing against your old teammates, a team that traded you away,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “It was a good effort for us to get [the win] for him, for sure.”
Thursday night, the Rangers saw exactly why they made the blockbuster move. Yandle was a force on both ends of the ice, constantly joining the rush while playing strong defense over 18:54 of ice time. His third-period goal was his first of the year.
“It’s always special when you play against a team you’ve been part of for many years and meant so much to,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 34 saves in the win. “I’m happy for him. It was an important game for us, but also for him. He wants to show them that he’s doing well here.”
He’s most-certainly doing well in New York. But it doesn’t matter how Yandle is doing right now. Only eight months until the most important question of all is answered.
Chris Kreider and Nash also scored their first of the season. Nash’s came on a breakaway with the Coyotes’ net empty during the final minute of the third period. While skating towards the net, he was hooked by Mikkel Boedker. The referees, by rule, awarded Nash the goal, ending his career-worst streak of seven straight scoreless games to open a season.
“The way things were going, yeah. Felt pretty standard,” Nash joked when asked if that’s how he envisioned his first goal of the season. “I’ve said all along I’ve been feeling good. I feel my game’s strong, I feel fast. Chances are there. It’s a matter of they’re going to come.”
Kevin Hayes had the other goal for the Rangers, scoring into a gaping net after Coyotes goalie Mike Smith (24 saves) gave the puck away early in the third period.
The Rangers improved to 100-1-1 in their last 102 regular-season games when scoring at least four goals in a game.