GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Perhaps some day, Rangers fans will recall Tuesday’s preseason game against the Islanders as not so much another piece of the decades-long rivalry, but as the opening act of a dynamic line with the pairing of Chris Kreider, center Mika Zibanejad and rookie Pavel Buchnevich.
On the other hand, it’s just the first time together for the trio in an NHL game. At 25, Kreider is the elder statesman beginning his fifth season; Zibanejad, 23, will play his first game as a Blueshirt since being acquired from Ottawa, and Buchnevich, the 21-year-old right winger, is coming in fresh from Russia’s KHL to Madison Square Garden.
“I try not to stay nervous, but of course, I think I’ll feel it before the game,” Buchnevich said Monday through an interpreter, Kristina Piseeva. Buchnevich has been in the New York area training and living with a host family since August and skated in the annual Traverse City, Michigan, prospects tournament.
“I hadn’t played a game in five months, so at first [the tournament] it was a little bit difficult, then I improved,” he said. “To be honest, [the time here] was difficult. Mostly because everybody speaks English. But my teammates are helping me out, especially Mika.” That Kreider speaks some Russian also helps.
“It’s all just about keeping it easy language-wise,” Zibanejad said. “He’s a smart guy on the ice, so you use words that he would know. But he’s really skilled, can pass the puck, and he’s got speed.”
“His English has improved quite a bit, and hockey-wise, from what I’ve seen in development camp [in late June] until now, you can tell the potential that’s there,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “It’s up to him, with our help.”
His strengths? “Being able to make plays in smaller areas, being able to move the puck and find open players,” Vigneault said. “That line has made some highly skilled plays. But mind you, you’re not going against NHL players all the time.”
And remember this: Vigneault loves to experiment with forward combinations and three of the top nine forwards — Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan and J.T. Miller — have yet to skate in training camp because they have been playing in the World Cup of Hockey. But Zibanejad, who has already scored 20 goals twice, is pumped.
“You really want to start off on the right foot and start with a good impression,” said Zibanejad, whose line also will be deployed on the power play. “Doesn’t really matter who I play with, you’ve got to earn your minutes . . . the pressure comes from within. I’m just evolving. The ambitions and goals that this team has, I think, just motivates you more to be a better player.”