DENVER — In the wake of the NBA suspending its season, amid the uneasiness of two teams in the NHL not allowed to play home games in front of fans, here were the Rangers, playing a wild game, talking about playoff implications, doing all they could not to think about the widespread health pandemic taking over the sports world.
What else were they supposed to do?
It was a strange feeling as the Blueshirts dropped a crazy 3-2 overtime contest to the Avalanche in the relative quiet of the Rocky Mountains on Wednesday night. Pavel Buchnevich tied it for the Rangers with 13 seconds left in regulation before a J.T. Compher tip won it for Colorado 2:50 into the three-on-three overtime.
The scare of the coronavirus was not far away, and yet an announced crowd of 18,025 jammed into the downtown Pepsi Center. But the Rangers were doing everything they could not to worry about things they couldn’t control — at least, for now.
“I really don’t think a lot about it,” coach David Quinn said before the game. “I can’t control that. We’re going to play hockey games until they tell us we don’t.”
That could come as early as Thursday, when the NHL is expected to make a further statement beyond what it released Wednesday night.
“The National Hockey League is aware of the NBA’s decision tonight to indefinitely suspend its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus,” the statement read. “The NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. We expect to have a further update [Thursday].”
A similar statement was released by the NHL Players’ Association, adding that it is in constant contact with the league and that “these discussions will continue [Thursday] morning, and we will consult with players before commenting further.”
The Sharks had already been forced to say no more fans for their home games in San Jose per a decree from Santa Clara County, and the governor of Ohio put a stop to fans at Blue Jackets games by eliminating large gatherings.
It’s plausible that the NHL — a league with a financial system predicated on gate receipts more than any other — would eliminate fans at any future games. But in that instance, the league might find it just as reasonable to follow the lead of the NBA and suspend the season indefinitely.
“We’ll play in front of zero fans or 20,000 fans,” Quinn said, “depending on what happens.”
What happened in this one was that the Rangers (37-28-5) contested a playoff-like game against the hobbled Avalanche (42-20-8), without injured star Nathan MacKinnon. The action was back and forth, and Buchnevich sent it to overtime with a redirection of an Artemi Panarin centering feed while goalie Alex Georgiev was on the bench for the extra attacker.
But in OT Compher’s tip of a Cale Makar shot snuck over Georgiev’s shoulder for the winner.
Quinn went to Georgiev in nets for this one after presumptive No. 1 Igor Shesterkin had started the previous two in his return from a broken rib suffered in a Feb. 23 car accident. Georgiev then had to stop a Matt Nieto penalty shot 4:43 into the third period to keep his team down, 2-1.
But the Rangers struggled to beat Georgiev’s counterpart, Pavel Francouz, who was outstanding throughout and made a handful of great saves including one on a semi-breakaway from Kaapo Kakko with 10 minutes left in regulation and a shorthanded breakaway on the hottest player in the league, Mika Zibanejad, with 2:20 left.
It was all contested after the news of the NBA’s decision had come just before puck drop, and it was still reverberating when Zibanejad continued his torrid play with his 41st goal of the season at 6:28 of the first period, giving his team a 1-0 lead. But less than six minutes later, the Rangers then gave up a power-play goal to Tyson Jost to tie it, 1-1.
They gave up another on a Colorado man-advantage at 3:55 of the second, when former Ranger Vlad Namestnikov got his 17th of the season when he beat a screened Georgiev to make it 2-1.
That was the deficit the Rangers took into the third period, with still the bigger issue of the fate of the remaining NHL season still hanging in the balance.
“Obviously it’s a hot topic for all of society. But from where we sit, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Quinn had said. “So I don’t really spend too much time on it. I follow it for health reasons, but that’s about it.”