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On anniversary of NHL's COVID-19 pause, a lot has changed for the Rangers

Rangers right wing Pavel Buchnevich, center, is mobbed

Rangers right wing Pavel Buchnevich, center, is mobbed by teammates after scoring the tying goal with 13 seconds remaining in the third period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Denver. Colorado won 3-2 in overtime. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

One year ago, the Rangers played what turned out to be the final game of their 2019-20 season in Denver, where Pavel Buchnevich’s goal with 13 seconds left in regulation earned them a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche on March 11, 2020.

The next day, March 12, the NHL announced it would pause its season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The point the Rangers earned in that game against the Avalanche was a valuable one at the time, as it pulled them within two of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, with 12 games remaining. Under normal circumstances, it would have been an exciting result for the Rangers, who had taken three of a possible four points in the first two games of a three-game trip, and were about to have a couple days off in the desert before finishing the trip in Arizona.

But the circumstances surrounding the game were hardly normal.

Just before the opening faceoff, news filtered out in the arena that the NBA was halting its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Everyone in the building knew the NHL would most likely follow suit the next day, so the entire game was played in an eerie vibe.

"I vividly remember about an hour before the game getting word that the NBA had paused their season,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said Thursday, before his team faced the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. "We certainly knew what was in store for the NHL once that happened. We had just come off a great win in Dallas, going back-to-back playing Colorado, and scored a goal late to tie it, and were looking forward to Phoenix to complete the road trip and make a push to make the playoffs. And unfortunately, that never happened, and the world certainly changed for everybody that day. And that seems like it was three years ago, not a year ago.’’

It was only a year, but what a difference a year has made for the Blueshirts.

Mika Zibanejad, who scored his 41st goal in that game against the Avalanche, entered Boston Thursday with three goals in his first 24 games of this season.

Henrik Lundqvist, the backup goaltender that night in Denver, is sitting this season out, following open heart surgery. But even before the surgery, he had left the Rangers, getting bought out of the final year of his contract before the season, and signing a free agent deal with the Washington Capitals.

And the Rangers found themselves slipping further away from a playoff spot, not getting closer.

They entered Thursday in sixth place in the East Division, with a 10-11-3 record and 23 points, seven fewer than the fourth-place Bruins (13-6-4, 30). The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs in this Covid-altered, 56-game season, so the Rangers have a lot of work to do if they are to stay in the hunt for a postseason berth.

They got good news Wednesday when forward Artemi Panarin returned to the team after a 16-day leave of absence he took following the publication of an article in Russia in which a former KHL coach of his accused him of hitting a woman in Latvia in 2011. However, Panarin was not in the lineup Thursday.

Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who started that game in Colorado, and who led the Rangers in 2019-20 in games played, and wins, started in goal Thursday. He is not off to a strong start, with a 3.03 goals-against average and .897 save percentage coming in. Igor Shesterkin, the presumptive No. 1 goalie coming into the season, missed his fourth game with a groin injury suffered a week ago in New Jersey against the Devils.

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