The night the Rangers have been gearing up for all offseason is finally here.
The remade Blueshirts open the 2021-22 season against the Capitals on Wednesday — this time with a lineup that was tailor-made to avenge the memory of the final two games between the clubs last season, when Washington instigator Tom Wilson absolutely manhandled two of the Rangers’ top players and sparked a league-wide narrative that the Blueshirts needed to toughen up.
And so the Rangers added a heap of grit, nastiness and muscle to the lineup in the forms of Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, Patrik Nemeth, Jarred Tinordi and Dryden Hunt. But not until a change in management was made.
CEO Jim Dolan fired general manager Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson and promoted Chris Drury. The new head honcho finished cleaning house by relieving David Quinn of his head-coaching duties and replacing him with Gerard Gallant.
This season-opening matchup with the Capitals, though, was never going to be about revenge or proving a point. It’ll be about setting a precedent. The Rangers want to show they can’t be pushed around anymore, won’t back down from a challenge and will be harder to play against than ever before.
“I don’t think it’s about showing it to other people as much [as it is about showing it] to ourselves, that we want to play the right way and go north,” Chris Kreider said Tuesday before the team traveled to Washington. “You can’t not play physical in this league, especially as the season drags on, getting to those meaningful games.”
The Rangers, however, aren’t allowing last season’s headlines to dictate their start to this season. Kreider said Wednesday’s game is just another opportunity for two points, while Reaves held the same mindset, pointing out that he’s experienced several rivalry games in his career.
“We’re not planning on going out there and saying, ‘If you get a chance to run over Tom Wilson, run him over,’ ” Gallant said. “That’s not going to be our objective to win the hockey game. We’re a different team, we know what we got, we’re a more physical team now than we were in the past. We want people to worry about us a little bit.”
Reaves has made his physical presence felt more than the other offseason additions. The longtime bruiser, acquired from Vegas and subsequently signed to a one-year extension, gave Vitali Kravtsov fighting lessons one day at training camp.
Reaves jumped into every scuffle he could during preseason — before Devils defenseman P.K. Subban got entangled with the veteran enforcer and sidelined him for the last tuneup game.
The Subban incident made it clear just how much more aware the Rangers are about competing as a team and for one another. Several players made sure to let Subban know how they felt about his role in Reaves’ injury.
“When you rebuild a team like this and that’s the emphasis on the offseason, you want to make sure that you’re coming out with that attitude,” said Reaves, who added he’s healthy and ready for opening night. “You don’t want to limp into the season and build on the physicality and have to talk about it and then it comes. You want it to be there from Day 1 and be part of your identity for the rest of the year.”
The Rangers expect a physical game with the Capitals, but nothing more than every other NHL team can expect from the Blueshirts this season
“If stuff happens, stuff happens,” Gallant said. “But I don’t think it’s got anything to do with the last incident.”