The fight to make the playoffs was valiant, and the experience for their young players has been priceless.
But reality set in for the Rangers in the aftermath of Thursday’s loss to the Islanders at the Garden. The time has come to focus on next year and beyond.
Forward Morgan Barron and defenseman Tarmo Reunanan got called up from the farm system on Friday, and Barron got to make his NHL debut Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum in the back end of the home-and-home set with the Islanders. Veterans Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba, and second-year man Ryan Lindgren did not play Saturday, which allowed the Rangers to give the two call-ups a headstart on their 2021-22 seasons.
"All the games they played down the stretch here, have been valuable for everybody, whether you're an older player or a younger player,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said before Saturday’s game. "It's meaningful hockey. And as the season winds down, the games become more playoff-like, and they become harder. And that's what we need: we need to continue to learn how to play in hard games.’’
Barron became the sixth player to make his NHL debut for the Rangers this season, joining 2018 first round picks Vitali Kravtsov and K’Andre Miller, 2020 No. 1 overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, 2019 third round pick Zac Jones and Reunanen, a seventh rounder in 2016 who played a game in March when Adam Fox had to sit out because of Covid protocol. Reunanen played his second NHL game Saturday.
By the time Barron and Reunanen and the rest of the Rangers took the ice for warmups, the Boston Bruins’ 6-2 win Saturday afternoon over the Buffalo Sabres had lifted the Bruins above the Islanders in the standings and widened Boston’s lead over the Rangers to eight points. The Bruins’ win reduced the Blueshirts’ tragic number to three points.
After all is said and done in this coronavirus-shortened season, the lasting impression of the young Rangers will likely be of them getting schooled by the Islanders in Thursday’s game, which had been more or less a must-win for their playoff hopes. They lost 4-0 to a veteran, no-frills Islanders team that dumps the puck in, drives to the net, and plays physical, disciplined hockey.
"They're a team that's in the playoff race and in a playoff spot for a reason,’’ defenseman Adam Fox said of the Islanders after Thursday’s loss. "They're an older team and have experience in games like this, so I think it's just good for us to learn from these games against a team like this and just get better for the future.’’
Quinn has never hidden his admiration for the Islanders’ straight-ahead style.
"I've touched on it before, I think we've got to learn from them and do some of the things they do, (and adopt) a little bit of a mentality that they have,’’ Quinn said Thursday night. "They never beat themselves. Now, we're also built differently, so, sometimes we're going to have the ability, maybe to score some goals that other teams don't. But that doesn't mean we can't do all the things everybody can do. And that's what we've got to get better at.’’
With their team speed, and with so many European-trained players, the Rangers are built to play a fast game, one that moves the puck back and forth cross-ice and often produces back door tap-in goals. But Quinn has made no secret he wants more of a physical, straight-line element in his lineup.
The hope is that the 6-4, 220-pound Barron, who led the Rangers’ Hartford affiliate in scoring, with 10 goals and 11 assists in 21 games, can provide that physical forward presence the Rangers have been looking for. The Rangers were eager to see what Barron – and Reunanen – looked like against bona fide NHL players before next fall’s training camp.