At least Neal Pionk’s preseason debut at Madison Square Garden turned out to be more rewarding than the last time he visited the arena.
On May 9, eight days after the promising defenseman from the University of Minnesota-Duluth signed a free-agent contract with the Blueshirts, he watched as the Rangers fell, 4-2, to the Ottawa Senators and were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Monday’s game had a different conclusion that may bode well for the future.
The 22-year-old scored the winner in overtime with a pretty spin move from the left point around the Islanders’ Brock Nelson, closed in on goalie Eamon McAdam and beat him high glove side for a 1-0 victory in the Blueshirts’ first of six preseason games on Monday.
In all, Pionk, a mobile righty with a strong shot from the point, played 22:55, had eight shot attempts and three blocks.
Paired with captain Ryan McDonagh, he was deployed at even strength, on the power play and shorthanded in a game with 18 minor penalties as the league begins to call more slashes and faceoff violations.
“He stayed here [in the New York area] all summer, worked out, his [fitness] test scores were real good,” coach Alain Vigneault said after watching tape on Pionk before witnessing him in live play on Monday, and said his game was similar to another young blueliner, Tony DeAngelo, who was acquired from Arizona.
Pionk, who is 6-foot, 185 pounds, ranked fifth among all NCAA defensemen in points with 34 in 42 games. He is pretty low-key, teammates said, and that was evident in his post-game comments.
“I just wanted to get my feet wet and get some confidence and I think I did that,” said Pionk, who also played for Sioux City of the USHL. “Now I have the pace of things and how physical it is; I think overall it was a good night.”
Pionk, who loved the Minnesota Twins growing up, especially Johan Santana, has credited fellow Minnesotan McDonagh for extensive advice during the on-ice sessions at camp. “He helps me out with systems, in the corners, pass routes, stick detail, everything. It’s awesome, a great experience.”
Between DeAngelo, another righty, and lefties Alexei Bereglazov, Ryan Graves, John Gilmour, Vince Pedrie and Sean Day, there’s a battle for the bottom spots on the Rangers’ defense corps.
Gordie Clark, the Rangers’ director of player personnel, has said Pionk’s vision and instincts are impressive. Pionk said his goal on Monday, “was just completely reactionary. I ran out of space there at the top, so I had to make a play. I ended up going to my backhand and got lucky on the shot. I was putting it glove side, I was trying to get it a little higher to be honest. I’m still pinching myself . . . that play may have caught their [the coaches’] eye, but I hope my whole game did.”