Kevin Rooney has a green suit, which he has been wearing all week, he said, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. And certainly, the Rangers forward planned to be rocking that suit again Wednesday, when he reported to Madison Square Garden for the Rangers’ game against the Philadelphia Flyers, which represented the midpoint of the 56-game season for the team.
Rooney, a free-agent import who played last season for the Devils, has proved to be a nice pickup for the Rangers. The fourth-line center and reliable penalty killer scored his fifth goal of the season in Monday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Flyers, giving him more goals than he had (four) in 49 games last season for the Devils. It’s one less than his career high of six, with the Devils in 2018-19, and, going into Wednesday’s game, it was two more than Mika Zibanejad's total.
"With New Jersey not making the playoffs [in 2019-20] I had a lot of time in the offseason, and it's something I really focused on,’’ Rooney said of his increase in goal-scoring. "Last year I really felt I became an NHL player, and I was getting tons of chances, especially later in the year in New Jersey. I just wasn't finishing them.
"And I liked the way I was playing,’’ he said. "And for me, it's always about chances. If you're getting your chances, eventually they'll go in. And I spent a lot of time this offseason working on some things to help me finish a little bit more.’’
The work seems to have paid off. Rooney’s shooting percentage of 19.2 entering Wednesday (five goals on 26 shots) was third on the team, behind Chris Kreider, who had a team-leading 14 goals (on 58 shots, for 24.1%) and Colin Blackwell (six goals on 29 shots, 20.7%). In 25 games, with an average of ice time of 12:34, Rooney had five goals and three assists, with a plus/minus rating of plus-4.
The Rangers signed Rooney, 27, to a two-year, one-way, $1.5 million contract in October because they believed their penalty kill needed some help, and Rooney had been a solid penalty-killer with the Devils. In looking at his options, the Rangers made sense to Rooney because he also believed he was a fit as a penalty-killer who could add to the team’s depth at the center position.
The 6-2, 190-pound Canton, Massachusetts, and Providence College product got COVID-19 at the start of training camp, but nevertheless managed to impress coach David Quinn enough to earn a lineup spot on opening night. And he seemingly has locked down that spot. Entering Wednesday, Rooney had played in 24 consecutive games, with the two games he missed the result of being shaken up by a blindside — and borderline dirty — hit from the Islanders’ Ross Johnston in the season opener.
So, even as Quinn began to rotate some bottom-six players out of the lineup recently, when some of the injured/COVID unavailable/leave of absence regulars began returning, Rooney has remained a staple on the fourth line. He and Brett Howden have formed a partnership up front as the second duo of penalty-killing forwards — behind the first pair of Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich — on a unit that, with an 85.6% kill rate, was fourth-best in the league entering Wednesday. And Rooney had the team’s only shorthanded goal.
At even strength, Rooney has been one of the team’s energy guys, who does a host of little things the Rangers need.
"I always want to be a consistent player, and I'm not going to let my foot off the gas,’’ Rooney said. "I want to keep helping this team. Any which way possible.’’