September in July?
Because when the Rangers took the ice Monday at their practice rink in Tarrytown — roll that one off your tongues again, folks, the Rangers took the ice on Monday! — this was not the first day of a training camp 2.0.
Rather, this was Day 1 in the quest to…
“Win the whole thing,” Mika Zibanejad said via a Zoom call following the team’s 40-minute practice. “We’re not here just to participate and just be another team. We want to win.
“Obviously we’ll take it game by game and series by series, but we’re here to win. We have a great opportunity like this, it’s a very, very different situation than a regular playoffs, but we’re here to win and we’re going to do everything in our power to do so.”
Truth be told, life on the rink appeared normal through the glass from behind, which a limited number of masked reporters watched while socially distanced. The team took line rushes with familiar combinations both up front and on defense before breaking into a brief cross-ice drill.
Nothing too heavy on the team’s first day together as a unit since the March 12 flight home from Colorado when the NHL went into its COVID-19-related pause. Nothing too tricky. But things will likely ramp up reasonably quickly with Game 1 of the best-of-five qualifying round against Carolina set for Aug. 1 in Toronto.
“This isn’t training camp,” said David Quinn, the head coach who did not strain his vocal cords on this opening day. “We are picking up where we left off, and I want that to be crystal clear to everybody here. This is not training camp.
“We’re trying to win a Stanley Cup.”
The Rangers left off having won only two of their last seven games (2-4-1) before the pause, but had gone 16-6 in the 22 games prior to that, so you get the point. The varsity skated at 11 a.m., the nine-man taxi-squad skated after that.
The Blueshirts you saw in March are the Blueshirts you will see in August. At least that is the plan — unless the coronavirus intercedes.
“We want to give people an opportunity to find their way,” Quinn said. “In a lot of ways, I look at this as a third season. In our first two seasons as a staff, there was a lot of uncertainty; there were a lot of question marks. It feels really good right now coming into this situation where there is clarity on what our lines are going to look like, what our ‘D’ pairs are going to look like, barring something crazy from happening.”
OK, so Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich; Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Jesper Fast; Phil DiGiuseppe-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko; Brett Howden-Greg McKegg-Julien Gauthier up front. And Ryan Lindgren-Adam Fox; Brendan Smith-Jacob Trouba; Marc Staal-Tony DeAngelo on defense. Brendan Lemieux, who faces a suspension likely of one or two games, worked as the extra forward.
The taxi squad that includes ninth defenseman Brandon Crawley as a late addition and K’Andre Miller as the designated Ranger allowed to participate in camp but ineligible to compete in the tournament, will come into play through injuries or positive tests. This group will also be included when the Blueshirts conduct scrimmages before leaving for Toronto on July 26. Coaches will be watching and evaluating, as always.
This may be consistent throughout the 24 precincts in which the tournament invitees reconvened Monday, but the Rangers sure seemed happy to be there. Quinn and club president John Davidson were both pleased with the attitude and atmosphere.
So too was Henrik Lundqvist, who will use this time to compete for the Game 1 assignment against the Candy ’Canes, though he will have to outdo and unseat incumbent Igor Shesterkin in order to claim the job. Alex Georgiev will also be in the mix.
“I think it was exciting to come back last week and starting to see guys,” said Lundqvist, who spent nearly all of the break in Sweden before returning July 3. “Everybody has had a different experience the last three or four months but to be back here and see everyone and being at the rink kind of gives you a sense of normal, if that makes sense.
“Everything has been upside down for all of us, but to be back here and to feel the atmosphere we create at this facility and the goal we work towards together, it’s a good feeling.”
The virus is still in control but it did not always feel that way on Monday. What it felt like was Rangers hockey.