With all the hype surrounding the big-name additions to the Rangers’ roster over the summer, a third-line grinder got the Blueshirts’ biggest goal in their season opener on Thursday night.
Newcomers Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba scored in their Rangers debuts, with Trouba doing it against his former team. But it was third-line center Brett Howden who scored the winning goal, as he drove the net and converted the rebound of Jesper Fast’s shot to break a tie with 4:09 remaining in regulation.
Brendan Smith, who played as a forward on the fourth line and as a defenseman on the penalty kill, then iced the game with an empty-net goal with 16.1 seconds remaining as the Rangers earned a 6-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at Madison Square Garden.
It had to be a meaningful goal for Howden, who is from the Winnipeg suburb of Oakbank, Manitoba, about 15 minutes away from Winnipeg.
“It’s certainly nice to get your first goal out of the way in your first game when you play for a new team,’’ coach David Quinn said. “So it’ll take a little bit of a load off them. But listen, it certainly wasn’t a Picasso out there. But we found a way to win, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.’’
Henrik Lundqvist, beginning his 15th season with the team and making his 14th consecutive opening night start, recorded 43 saves to earn career victory No. 450, though he wasn’t all that excited about the milestone.
“I don’t know. First win of the season, that’s what it means to me right now,’’ a smiling Lundqvist said when asked about No. 450. “And it feels really good.’’
The Rangers, who had led three times in the game, fell behind 4-3 on a power-play goal by Kyle Connor at 2:41 of the third period.
Mika Zibanejad tied it at 4 with a breakaway backhander at 5:04. Trouba picked up an assist.
Panarin, who drew some of the loudest cheers during the pregame introductions, scored his first goal as a Ranger on a power play to give the Blueshirts a 2-1 lead 27 seconds into the second period. But before the Garden crowd had stopped cheering, Winnipeg tied it on the first of two goals by Blake Wheeler, who finished a two-on-one pass from Nikolaj Ehlers 30 seconds after Panarin’s goal.
Trouba — who was traded by the Jets to the Rangers in June for Neal Pionk and a return of their own first-round pick (dealt to the Rangers in the Kevin Hayes trade in February) — blasted a shot from the point, through a screen, off the crossbar and past Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead at 6:03, five seconds after a Rangers power play had expired.
“I don’t usually get too emotional over goals, but I was pretty excited after that one,’’ Trouba said. “It was nice to see it go in. The place was buzzing, it was rocking. It was a nice first game.’’
Wheeler again dumped water all over the Rangers’ celebration, scoring on the next shift to tie it at 3-3 at 6:12, beating Lundqvist with a wrist shot.
Marc Staal was the unlikely scorer of the Rangers’ first goal of the season, getting in deep on the left wing and taking a return pass from Zibanejad (goal, two assists, plus-4) and going behind the net before scoring on a wraparound at 11:35 of the first period.
Zibanejad grinned when he was asked if he expected Staal to try a wraparound shot.
Said Zibanejad, “I wanted him to pass it back to me.’’