Rangers’ Zibanejad acknowledges virus affected slow start

Mika Zibanejad didn’t want to use COVID-19 as an excuse for his slow start this season.

With just three goals in the New York Rangers’ first 27 games, there were questions about his struggles.

“It was hard, it wasn’t easy and everyone reacts to it differently,” Zibanejad said on a Zoom call with reporters. “I wasn’t feeling very good. I told you guys I was fine, but it was just for my sake I didn’t want to create anything around that or put that in my own head really.”

Zibanejad had a second-half surge and scored 21 goals over the final 29 games and finished with 50 points. His 24 goals gave him the team lead for the fourth straight season.

“Just to end the season the way I did it was obviously a huge confidence boost in that way and with everything that was going on right before the season and the first couple of months, the first six weeks, I’m happy I was able to bounce back and get through it,” he said.

The Rangers, with one of the youngest teams in the NHL, also got off to a slow start but picked up their play and contended for a playoff spot until the penultimate weekend of the season.

“I think the group really came together over the course of the year,” forward Chris Kreider said. “Youngest team in hockey, a lot of new faces, lot of new guys stepping into roles and positions they may not have been in the past. I think the entire year was a terrific learning experience.”

There were plenty of bright spots. Artemi Panarin led the team with 58 points in 42 games. Ryan Strome (14 goals, 35 assists), Pavel Buchnevich (20 goals, 28 assists) and Adam Fox (five goals, 42 assists) also topped 40 points. Alexis Lafrenière, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, had 12 goals and nine assists, and Kaapo Kakko — the No. 2 overall pick in 2019 — had nine goals and eight assists.

The aftermath of a brawl against the Washington Capitals led team owner James Dolan to question the team’s toughness and make a change in the front office in the final week of the season.

Now, with former captain Chris Drury having taken over as president and general manager, the Rangers headed into the offseason with some questions about their future despite making strides in their rebuilding effort.

The first set of answers could come as soon as Drury makes a decision about coach David Quinn’s status. The Rangers are 96-87-25 in three seasons under Quinn, and Drury said last week he would evaluate everything once the season is over.

If Drury decides to make a change, he could promote Hartford Wolf Pack coach Kris Knoblauch, who filled it while Quinn and the coaching staff were sidelined with COVID-19. There are also several experienced NHL coaches available such as former Rangers coach John Tortorella.

Regardless of who will be leading the way, the objective after a quick exit in last year’s play-in round and a fifth-place finish in the pandemic-shortened, division-only season this year is crystal clear.

“Our attitudes starting right now when we leave the rink is we’re making the playoffs next year,” Kreider said. “That’s our goal and everything that we do, everything will be working towards during the course of the summer going to the preseason is going to be built towards that one goal.”

RELEASE THE KRAKEN

The Seattle Kraken are set to become the NHL’s 32nd team and will be stocking their franchise with the expansion draft.

The Rangers will likely lose a player, possibly a forward such as Brett Howden or Filip Chytil (if either restricted free agent receives a qualifying offer and is left unprotected).

Defenseman Tony DeAngelo, waived by the team in late January but still under contract for next season, is another possibility.

EICHELMANIA

Jack Eichel is reportedly unhappy with the Buffalo Sabres and could be dealt this summer. The Rangers finished 10th in scoring at 3.14 goals per game, but also struggled to score at times — getting shut out seven times, third most in the league. Adding some scoring could be attractive, but landing the star center, who is at odds with the Sabres over how to treat his injury, would be part of a blockbuster trade that would see some big names going the other way.

CONTRACTS

Defenseman Brendan Smith is an unrestricted free agent after finishing a four-year, $17.4 million deal. In addition to Chytil and Howden, other key restricted free agents that must be re-signed include Buchnevich and goalie Igor Shesterkin. Defenseman Ryan Lindgren just got a new three-year deal. Forward Phillip di Guiseppe and defenseman Libor Hajek are also RFAs. And looking ahead, Zibanejad and Strome will be UFAs next summer.

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    Hughes has first NHL hat trick, Devils beat Capitals 5-1

    Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
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    NEWARK, N.J. – Jack Hughes had his first career NHL hat trick, Vitek Vanecek made 38 saves against his former team and the New Jersey Devils beat the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Saturday for coach Lindy Ruff’s 800th victory.

    “It’s exciting,” Hughes said. “Couple of two-goal games in my career, so nice to cap it off with the third one tonight.”

    Ruff became the fifth NHL coach to reach the 800-victory mark. The former Buffalo player won 571 games with the Sabres from 1997-2011. He had 165 wins in five seasons with Dallas and has 64 in two-plus seasons with New Jersey.

    “It means I’ve been around a long time,” Ruff cracked. “Great to win the game. Again, you got to do a lot of right things, have good teams, and the way our team is playing I have to give them a lot of credit for getting me there.”

    The Atlantic Division-leading Devils have won two in a row after seeing their franchise-record 13-game winning streak snapped by Toronto.

    Devils captain Nico Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund also scored.

    John Carlson scored for Washington and Charlie Lindgren made 24 saves.

    “Not scoring goals, not capitalizing on our chances,” Carlson said. “We’ve had our chances, especially today, but we only walked away with one goal. We could have had five or six. It’s just not going in right now.”

    Vanecek, meanwhile, was hoping for the shutout against a familiar foe.

    “That would have been nice, but that’s hockey,” Vanecek said, “For sure you’re trying, but not every time; the win is more important.”

    Hischier opened up the scoring with his 10th goal of the season midway through the first period on a power play after Alexander Ovechkin was called for slashing.

    Hughes wrapped the puck around goalie Lindgren’s right leg and the goal post to put the Devils up 2-0 5:59 into the second period. Hughes appeared to have lost his angle on the goal when he ripped a shot off Lindgren’s face mask and into the net midway through the period for his 10th goal of the season to give New Jersey a 3-0 lead.

    The 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick added his third midway through the third period as hats rained down on the ice with New Jersey up 4-0.

    “You want to continue to play the right way, but if an opportunity comes you want to definitely put it in the back of the net with authority,” Hughes said. “So tonight, I was able to cap it off and it was nice.”

    Fabian Zetterlund capped the scoring for New Jersey late in the third period.

    NOTES: The Devils improved to 16-0-0 this season when Hischier has a point. New Jersey’s Nathan Bastain (upper body) did not return after the first period. . Ovechkin is still nine goals away from 800 and 11 from passing Gordie Howe for second place on the NHL goals list.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: At Vancouver.

    Devils: At the New York Rangers.

    Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

    Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

    The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

    Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

    “It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

    In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

    “It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

    In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

    “We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

    Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

    Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

    Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

    Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

    Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

    TAKE NOTE

    The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

    Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

    Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

    Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

    The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.