NEW YORK – The party celebrating the Rangers home opener began long before the puck dropped at Madison Square Garden, with an outdoor fanfest just outside the building. It continued when gates opened, with t-shirts placed on every seat and cupcakes handed out in the press box.
Festivities really got rolling on the ice, though, when the Rangers jumped all over the Blue Jackets (0-2-0) with three goals in the opening 5:48 of the first period. New York cruised from there, improving to 3-0-0 to open the season with a 5-2 win, sweeping a home-and-home set against their Metropolitan Division rivals.
Throughout training camp, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault spoke of the need to get off to a quick start. Two years ago, they started 21-20-3 before sprinting to the finish line and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. Last season, they went 11-10-4 before roaring to the finish line and winning the Presidents’ Trophy. This year, they’ve won their first three games of the season for the first time since winning five straight to begin the 2008-09 season.
“The core group from last year is helping the new guys,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was spectacular while making 37 saves. “Together, we understand what needs to be done early on. Two years ago, we changed our system. Last year, we tried to recover a little bit from the Finals. Now this year, it feels like we all understand what needs to be done.”
“When I first looked at the schedule, they didn’t throw us any bones to start the season, so that’s what my thought was,” said defenseman Marc Staal of the team’s difficult start, with the season-opener against the Blackhawks and a back-to-back against Columbus. “We knew it was going to be tough, so it’s definitely nice to get out to a 3-0 [start].”
“We know we can improve defensively, giving up chances – hopefully giving up less against,” said captain Ryan McDonagh. “But at the end of the day, we found a way to win three pretty good, important games to start the year. Obviously, it’s only three games so we have to continue to work in practice and get better.”
One of the biggest keys to their early-season success has been the red-hot start by Lundqvist, who’s 3-0 with a goals against average of 2.01 and a save percentage of .943 through three games after starting each of the previous three seasons slowly.
“AV left me with the message. Last thing he told me before I went back to Sweden [in June] was, ‘you have to be better when we start,’” Lundqvist said. “That stayed with me the entire summer and coming back to camp.”
“He’s certainly been, without a doubt, our best player since the start of the season,” Vigneault said. “You have to give full credit to [goaltending coach] Benoit Allaire. I had discussed this with him, he got a plan together, he discussed it with Hank, and obviously the way he’s playing right now, the plan is falling into place.”
Lundqvist was nothing short of spectacular, even though he lost his shutout bid at 4:35 of the third period. He made multiple incredible, highlight-reel saves throughout the game, and has started a season 3-0 for the first time since 2008-09.
“He always plays phenomenal,” said forward J.T. Miller of Lundqvist. “It’s pretty rare he brings his A-minus night. He always brings it. Tonight, he made some incredible saves. Pretty standard for him.”
Oscar Lindberg led the way offensively for the Rangers with two first-period goals; he’s the first Rangers rookie to ever score a goal in each of the team’s first three games of a season.
“I don’t try to overthink it; I’m just trying to play,” Lindberg said. “Coming in today, with this crowd and everything, it was a special feeling. Winning the first three games, and to be able to score a goal too, it’s pretty special for sure.”
“Players go through these stretches,” Vigneault said of his rookie third-line center. “I need him to be very effective at both ends. He’s gotten us some real timely, important goals. Tonight those two early goals for a third game in four nights, you need those.”
“Playing three in four, the biggest challenge was to find that energy,” Lundqvist said. “But it’s so much fun to come back home and play here at the Garden again. It was not hard to find that energy tonight.”
The Rangers snapped a five-game losing streak in their home opener, winning for the first time since a 5-2 win over the Senators in 2009.
The Rangers are now 11-1-1 in the second half of their last 13 back-to-back sets. This was the first of 17 back-to-back sets they’ll play this season.
The Rangers have scored three goals in a period in all three games they’ve played.