This was always going to be the way for the New York Rangers.
Despite accelerating their rebuild even further, or perhaps placing it in turbocharge mode, after selecting Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers were always going to be a work in progress throughout the 2020-21 season.
We’re only three games in but that is already proving to be the case with the Blueshirts 1-2-0 to start the year, suffering their second loss of the season on Tuesday to the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden. Now, the 4-3 loss doesn’t tell the whole story given that the Rangers were 3-1 down at one point before nearly coming back while they also threw 50 shots on net, but Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood continued his hot start to the year by absolutely standing on his head.
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However, after dropping the Season Opener to the New York Islanders in a 4-0 shutout before gaining revenge with a 5-0 victory just a couple of nights later, the pattern of inconsistency that was developed in 2019-20 has already been formed by the class of 2020-21.
And, despite boasting a talent-laden roster spearheaded by the likes of Lafreniere, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Kaapo Kakko, this was always going to be the way for the New York Rangers in 2020-21. There were always going to be tantalizing steps forward swiftly followed by frustrating steps back.
That was certainly the case on Tuesday night as the Rangers failed to build on their mauling of the Islanders on Saturday, instead getting off to an incredibly sluggish start with Travis Zajac getting the Devils on the board just 32 seconds into the game, beating Alexandar Georgiev with a rebound that the goalie will want back.
Expect a season full of ups and downs for the New York Rangers
Chris Kreider’s first of the year on the power play did make it a tied game in the second period, but two goals from Jack Hughes, who has enjoyed a hell of a start to his sophomore season, put the Rangers firmly on the backfoot again. Granted, they did wake up and attempted to mount a comeback with Mika Zibanejad and Filip Chytil lighting the lamp either side of Miles Wood‘s power play goal for the New Jersey Devils, but Blackwood soon shut up shop and finished with 47 saves on 50 shots.
It was a hugely-frustrating night for the Rangers and it was just compounded by the fact that Zibanejad, who was just starting to find his groove again after missing the majority of Training Camp with COVID-19, left the third period with an injury after falling into the boards. If the elite center is indeed out for some time, then it will further hinder a team that will probably struggle to keep pace in an incredibly competitive East Division.
Of course, Blueshirts fans were expecting Playoffs heading into the year given that their team made the expanded postseason in 2019-20 but, in truth, this was always going to be another year where the focus and the onus was on developing the likes of Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller while adjusting to life without Henrik Lundqvist.
After all, this is still a flawed roster with very little toughness and a very real need for both a legitimate second-line center and a top-four defenseman that can partner Jacob Trouba, and the 2022-23 offseason could be the time where the front office can really bolster this roster and get it ready for the final stages of the rebuild.
But, for now, stuck in the East where six teams are all built to make the Playoffs with only four making it out of each division, maybe even seven given the way the Devils are playing, the New York Rangers will have to keep going through these growing pains, as frustrating as they are, in order to mature and get better and, while there will be spectacular highs in 2020-21, there will also be crushing lows and that’s just the way it is going to be for a team still finding their identity and slowly putting the pieces in place for an eventual return to the glory days.