After a short training camp and an out-of-place off-season, the Rangers and the Islanders will start their N.H.L. seasons by playing each other on Thursday night, without fans, at Madison Square Garden.
The teams will enter this abbreviated, 56-game sprint to the playoffs after vastly different experiences in summer bubbles in Canada, which helped the league complete its 2019-20 season.
The Islanders return to the ice with confidence carved from recent success. They won three series in the Toronto bubble before falling in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in the Eastern Conference finals in Edmonton, Alberta.
“It feels like you’re picking up where you left off,’’ Anders Lee, the Islanders’ captain, said. “It definitely feels like we can pick up and continue on.”
The Rangers had a brief Toronto bubble stay — losing three straight games to the Carolina Hurricanes in their early August qualifying-round series. Since then, the organization said goodbye to three veterans: goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (buyout), defenseman Marc Staal (trade to Detroit) and forward Jesper Fast (free-agent signing with Carolina).
Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall pick in 2020, and the 2018 first-round selection K’Andre Miller, a 6-foot-4 defenseman who played the past two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, are among the additions.
“I feel really good and obviously a lot of nerves, but I think I’m really excited — really looking forward to tomorrow and my first N.H.L. game,” Lafreniere said on Wednesday. “I’ve been dreaming for a long time, so it’s going to be a really special moment for sure.”
For David Quinn, the Rangers’ third-year coach, the challenge will be building on the momentum his team had displayed before play was paused in March because of the pandemic. The team had found a groove thanks to the offensive prowess of forwards Artemi Panarin (team-leading 95 points), Mika Zibanejad (team-best 41 goals) and Chris Kreider, who signed a seven-year contract extension last year.
Zibanejad said on Monday that he had tested positive for coronavirus before training camp started and was on the mend.
The Rangers are looking forward to the addition of Lafreniere, 19, who amassed 112 points for Rimouski Océanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. He will join the team’s existing young core, including Kaapo Kakko, the second overall pick in 2019, defenseman Adam Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who was 10-2-0 last season.
“We feel really good about our group,’’ the Rangers’ general manager, Jeff Gorton, said. “Our team was trending in the right direction. A lot of our young players were improving. I think we’re deeper. I think we’ve improved.”
Panarin, 29, a Hart Trophy finalist after his sterling inaugural season with the Rangers, said he was thrilled to have Lafreniere as a new teammate.
“I’ve been watching him on the ice, obviously see a lot of skill,’’ Panarin said. “We’re obviously very happy to have him. My advice was that now that he’s playing at this level in men’s hockey, it’s all about mental stability. It’s all about preparation. It’s maybe no longer about skating laps, but really working on your mental part of the game and your psychology.”
The Islanders, meanwhile, have a squad that has mainly stayed intact since coming within two games of the finals in September.
Defenseman Johnny Boychuk retired because of an eye injury and forward Derick Brassard and goaltender Thomas Greiss departed as free agents. But the team’s leading scorer, Mathew Barzal, recently signed a three-year, $21 million contract, and the rookie goaltender Ilya Sorokin of Russia will join his veteran countryman and mentor, Semyon Varlamov.
“I’m very happy to work with him here and learn from him,’’ Sorokin said.
Like the Rangers’ Shesterkin, Sorokin arrives in North America with significant experience in Russia’s K.H.L. He added that he was looking forward to adding to their rivalry from Russia.
“When we go to the ice, we don’t think about friendship, just about the game,’’ said Sorokin, a third-round pick by the Islanders in 2014.
The Islanders feature a core including the veteran forwards Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who gave the Islanders a postseason spark with eight goals after he was acquired from Ottawa and signed to a six-year extension.
The health concerns the league dealt with last season have not eased, but the bubbles are gone and the players will be traveling and going home to their families as they play in mostly empty arenas.
“When we got in the bubble we were basically in the safest place on earth almost,’’ Islanders Coach Barry Trotz said. “Now you’re putting this out into the real world a little bit and you have to be extra diligent. You have all these protocols, and you can’t deviate a whole lot.”
Lee said a key difference would be the unusual dynamic of playing without fans at Nassau Coliseum, an arena known for its raucous crowds. Next fall, the Islanders will move to their new arena near Belmont Park.
“It’s just one of those things where it’s the norm,’’ Lee said. “And it will be fun to see how that goes in all the other buildings. Our ability to adapt — whether it was in the bubble or now with what the season is going to bring — I think that bodes well for us to hit the ground running.”
The Rangers and Islanders will have eight meetings with division rivals, including the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, making every game like a playoff game.
There will be many back-to-back games in the same venue (the Rangers will host the Islanders on Saturday night as well). The Islanders open their home schedule on Monday at Nassau Coliseum against Boston.
“We expect there to be a level of intensity that will start strong and get even stronger through the 56 games,’’ Gary Bettman, the N.H.L. commissioner, said at a news conference this week. “We think it should be exciting and should be competitive. And I think there will be some disappointed teams that don’t get to make the playoffs because the competition will be that intense.”
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