The fact that his first game of the preseason came Thursday against the Devils, the same opponent he faced when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear last season, meant nothing to Rangers forward Sammy Blais Thursday.
“Not really, no,’’ Blais said after Thursday’s morning skate at the Rangers’ Westchester County practice facility. “I’m just going to go out there and have fun. I’m just excited to be back, finally, on the ice, and play a real game.’’
It was Nov. 14, 2021, more than 10 months ago, when Blais had his right skate kicked out from under him by then-Devils defenseman P.K. Subban and he slid awkwardly into the side boards at the Garden. Subban recently announced his retirement from the NHL, so Blais didn’t have to worry about seeing him across the ice. Instead, he could concentrate on trying to return to being the same player he was before the injury -- a big, gritty forward who looked like he had the chance to be a contributor on the Blueshirts’ top two or three lines.
“I'm just trying to be the same player I was before -- physical, (and) when I have the chance to put it in (the net), I have to put it in,’’ he said. “I’m just trying to get out of that first game, and just get back to my style of play, physical and hard on the forecheck, and I'm able to make plays too.’’
Against the Devils, the 6-2, 210-pound Blais played right wing on the first line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Blais had four hits, no shots and was a minus-1 in 13:31 of ice time in the Rangers' 5-2 loss at the Garden. He took 18 shifts and played 1:03 on the power play.
That right wing spot on the top line has been a puzzle for coach Gerard Gallant to figure out since Pavel Buchnevich was traded to St. Louis for Blais and a second-round draft pick in the summer of 2021. Blais was playing there when he was injured, and after that the position was a revolving door that saw Barclay Goodrow, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and others take a turn.
Frank Vatrano, who fit perfectly there after arriving at last season’s trade deadline, wasn’t re-signed, so the spot is once again up for grabs. Blais played there in the intrasquad scrimmages last week, but Kakko was there Monday in the preseason opener against the Islanders. On Thursday, Kakko was back on the Kid Line with Lafreniere and Filip Chytil.
“What Sammy brings to our team, he's a big strong guy, he goes to the net, and he does all those good things,’’ Gallant said. “It's been a long time, obviously, I think 10 months (since he played last)… So, give him an opportunity to play with those guys and see how things go.’’
Blais, who admitted he expected to be nervous at the start of the game, said he wasn’t focused on who he was playing with or what opportunity that represented.
“Every time you step on the ice, it's an opportunity to show what you can do,’’ he said. “But it's going to be my first game in over 10 months, so I’m just excited to be playing hockey.’’
Notes & quotes: Igor Shesterkin played two periods against the Devils and allowed three goals on 25 shots. Olof Lindblom played the third period, allowing one goal on 10 shots . . . Kreider and Lafreniere both scored shorthanded goals. Lafreniere's goal was unassisted . . . The Rangers assigned 19 players to AHL Hartford on Thursday: Goaltenders Talyn Boyko and Dylan Garand; defensemen Louka Henault, Blake Hillman, Luke Martin, Matthew Robertson, Hunter Skinner, and forwards Easton Brodzinski, Cristiano DiGiacinto, Tanner Fritz, Parker Gahagen, Zach Giuttari, Zach Jordan, Ryder Korczak, Ryan Lohin, Matt Rempe, Austin Rueschhoff, Bobby Trivigno and Alex Whelan. The cuts leave 42 players in camp.