Rangers, Islanders open season with rivalry game

Nearly 11 months ago, Mika Zibanejad scored shortly into overtime to conclude a dynamic game between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders.

Nobody could have imagined that the next meeting would take place nearly a year later and be played in an empty arena.

The Islanders and Rangers renew their rivalry Thursday night, and instead of a rabid sellout crowd cheering them on, no fans will be in attendance at Madison Square Garden.

It is the first meeting since Zibanejad scored 28 seconds into overtime to give the Rangers a 4-3 victory on Feb. 25 in Uniondale, N.Y. A little over two weeks later, the season was paused for over four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic that at the time was slowly making its way to North America.

When the season resumed, both teams were part of the Toronto bubble, but their stays were varied. The Rangers quickly were eliminated in a three-game sweep by the Carolina Hurricanes while the Islanders beat the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers before falling in six games to eventual the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.

Virtually all of last year’s roster returns for the Rangers, though this will be the first time Henrik Lundqvist is not the starting goaltender in a season opener since 2005. Lundqvist had his contract bought out in the offseason, and he signed with Washington before undergoing surgery for a heart condition.

Instead, the Rangers will go with rookie Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev between the pipes to start the season. Shesterkin debuted on Jan. 7 and is expected to make his first start in the rivalry after going 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average in 12 games.

Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin are back following their first dynamic season as teammates. Panarin tied Boston’s David Pastrnak for third with 95 points, and he had 63 assists, tied with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for second. Zibanejad finished fifth in the league with 41 goals, and shortly before the pause, he scored five goals against Washington on March 5.

Zibanejad missed the start of training camp with COVID-19 but appears ready to play Thursday, when he will center a line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. Joining the forward crew will be Alexis Lafreniere, who was the first overall pick in the draft after scoring 35 goals in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season.

“I feel really good,” Lafreniere said. “Obviously, a lot of nerves, but I’m really excited and really looking forward to (Thursday). My first NHL game, that’s something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time.”

The Islanders return virtually all of the same cast for the third season under coach Barry Trotz and are coming off their first appearance in the conference finals since 1992-93.

“The first thing is to forget about the last two seasons,” Trotz said Tuesday. “We haven’t gotten to where we want to get to and we’re not sneaking up on anybody.”

The returnees include Mathew Barzal, who signed a contract extension last week. He led the Islanders with 60 points last season, then added 17 points during the playoff run. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who appeared in seven regular-season games following a trade from Ottawa, then scored eight playoff goals, will be on board for a full season.

Also returning are Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier. Nelson led the Islanders with 26 goals last season, Lee had 43 points while often playing on the top line and Beauvillier had 39 points.

Semyon Varlamov is expected to start in goal for the Islanders after going 19-14-6 with a 2.62 goals-against average in 45 regular-season games. He went 11-7 with a 2.14 GAA in the postseason.