While Gerard Gallant’s two-year tenure saw the Rangers put up two of their best regular seasons in club history, along with a run to the Eastern Conference final in his first year, it felt very much like he was more a cheerleader than a coach. Enter Peter Laviolette back in June, bringing with him a very specific idea on what it takes to win.
How quickly the Rangers would adapt to the change remained to be seen, and a 1-5-0 record in the preseason along with some indifferent performances from a number of veterans was cause enough to wonder whether it might take a while, if at all.
Then we had last night. The Rangers on the road in Buffalo for their 2023-24 season opener, turned in what could only be called a significantly different look and performance than perhaps we’ve been accustomed to, perhaps since the Tortorella era.
Lafreniere Has Strong Showing
The team showed structure, quickness with their decision making, and a commitment from the forwards to cover the defense when they went deep. They limited Buffalo’s ability to gain clean access through the neutral zone, and reduced the opportunity for second chances, the only Sabres goal coming off a blocked shot that went straight to J.J. Peterka for what amounted to a one-timer.
Meanwhile the Rangers offense looked more fluid, particularly on the transition from the neutral zone. They had better control of the puck in the offensive zone, and while it wasn’t perfect, did generate chances, which ultimately resulted in goals.
There’s still things to work on of course, the PP still appears to be a bit of a work in progress, even while scoring quickly on their first opportunity in the opening period – Chris Kreider redirecting an Adam Fox shot from up high past 21 year-old Devon Levi who picked up his first loss to the Rangers in this his third outing since debuting against them last year.
If there’s one player on the Rangers who has a lot to gain under Laviolette, it has to be Alexis Lafreniere. Having just turned 22, and on a second contract that is far below his fellow recent First Overall Picks, Lafreniere has struggled to earn the opportunity afforded to his counterparts.
Peter Laviolette though appears to be willing to give him the chance, and assembled a line of Artemi Panarin, Filip Chytil and Lafreniere. The trio got zero time together during the preseason, but came out as the most dominating line on the night. Panarin looked decisive with the puck, Chytil showed no ill effects of the injury that caused him to miss much of the preseason, and Lafreniere for his part scored an early first goal and grew from there.
His elevated play was particularly noticeable in the second period, where he made consecutive plays on the power play, first to keep the puck in traffic, and then to retrieve it after it was stolen from Blake Wheeler along the boards. He also later had a nice move to drive to the net, curling the puck around his body but running out of space on the short side, on what would have been a highlight goal.
The nominal right wing also stepped in on the faceoff circle with the Rangers presumably protecting Chytil, and won 4 of the 5 attempts taken.
Vesey A Healthy Scratch
According to Laviolette, scratching Vesey was a tough decision. With Will Cuylle having earned a well-deserved spot on the third line left wing, it meant that one of the veteran wingers would have to take a seat. The most like pair under consideration were Tyler Pitlick and Jimmy Vesey, with Laviolette ultimately deciding to sit the latter for game time.
Defenseman Zac Jones also sat out, and will likely have to bide his time with Erik Gustafsson having made the decision easy.