Wheels Up, finally!
Blake Wheeler scored his first goal as a Ranger to provide a two-goal lead en route to a 4-1 victory over the Wild at the Garden on Thursday night, enabling the 37-year-old to feel a little more a part of the Blueshirts’ 10-2-1 start.
With the Rangers in the final seconds of their only power play of the night, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wheeler camped out in front of the Minnesota net. After goalie Marc-Andre Fleury slid to his right to stop a shot from Will Cuylle, Wheeler shoveled the rebound over an unguarded goal line to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead with 5:21 to go.
“I didn’t envision it taking so long. It’s not the worst one I’ve ever had,” said Wheeler, who notched the 313th goal of his 17-season career. He also became the 753rd player to score a goal for the Rangers, according to the team. “It’s just nice to contribute to a win. I think with the team we have in here, we have such a strong lineup that you just want to feel a part of it and like you’re contributing, so it’s nice to pop one in every once in a while.”
Head coach Peter Laviolette elevated Wheeler to right wing on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, replacing Kaapo Kakko, after Saturday’s overtime loss in Minnesota. The Rangers, who are also dealing with the absence of center Filip Chytil up front, are 2-0 since the switch. And Laviolette wasn’t surprised Wheeler was able to get one to go.
“It did feel like it was coming,” Laviolette said. “He’s played better. He talked about the first five or six games [when Wheeler said he didn’t feel like himself]. Every game he looks a little bit stronger. I think going up and playing with Mika and Kreids, I think that’s been a positive for all of the lines. It just seems to be a little bit better balance.”
Wheeler, who now has two goals and an assist, was the only member of his line to crack the score sheet on this night. Kreider has nine goals and three assists, Zibanejad two goals and eight assists.
“Those guys have played together so long. They know each other like the back of their hand, so I’m just trying to play fast and play simple and try not to screw up their chemistry too much,” said Wheeler, who has 50 goals as a Boston Bruin, 262 for the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise, and now one as a Ranger.
“I think our line is doing a lot of really good things. We’re about one pass or one play away from really starting to lock in to what we can do offensively.”