By Michael Obernauer (NHL.com)
Adam Fox is sorry, but not that sorry. When the Rangers’ rookie blueliner picked up his first NHL assist last Thursday, on Chris Kreider’s 134th career goal, his teammates made sure to grab the puck for Fox to hang onto. Five nights later it was Ryan Lindgren’s turn to celebrate his first NHL assist. Fox is keeping that puck, too.
“Yeah, he doesn’t get to have that one,” Fox said with a grin. “Sorry. What can I say?”
That is, of course, because when Lindgren got his assist in the third period of Tuesday’s Garden win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, it so happened it helped set up Fox’s first NHL goal. And no worries about the memento – Lindgren, it turns out, was prepared for this.
“It’s actually funny, me and Foxy were talking before the game: If he got a goal and I assist on it, who would keep the puck?” Lindgren said on Thursday. “The fact it actually happened is pretty cool. It was obviously an amazing moment.”
Lindgren and Fox, two 21-year-old rookie defensemen, were paired together for the first time in the NHL, but when Lindgren said “it’s easy to play with Foxy,” he is speaking from deeper experience: The two were teammates at the U.S. National Team Development Program and helped the Americans take gold at the 2017 World Juniors, among other international tournaments. “He’s one of my best buddies,” Lindgren said. “It’s pretty cool that we shared that moment.”
That moment came on a night the Rangers had seven players in their lineup age 21 or younger for just the third time in franchise history, and saw four of them make the scoresheet. Trailing last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners at first intermission, the Rangers got a tying goal from Kaapo Kakko in the second period, then the eventual winner from Filip Chytil in his season debut for the Blueshirts, followed by Fox’s insurance marker to help seal their second win in three games.
Fox and Lindgren were paired once again in Thursday’s practice in Westchester, and they will be all about the business ahead when the Rangers practice and travel to Nashville on Friday. On Thursday, Fox allowed himself a little moment to look back on a game that he said “I’ll definitely remember for a long time.”
His goal came with 2:36 left to play, after Lindgren had hit Kreider up the wing to start a break. Fox was the trailer, and Kreider fired what amounted to a pass off the goaltender’s pad. It popped out to Fox, and he drilled it.
“It’s crazy because you try and picture what it’s going to be like and then it happens, and you can’t control yourself you’re just so happy,” said the Long Island-bred Fox, who was doubly thrilled that his parents, longtime Season Ticket Members, and his grandfather, who lives in Florida, could be at the Garden to witness it. “That kind of excitement, it’s obviously a very special feeling. Kind of a blur when it happens – I saw it go in and, just smiling.
“It was nice to get it in a win and have it be a big goal for us.”
The bigger picture: That was the best part for Fox, and also for the Rangers. Not only did his goal give his team a massive lift in an important home-ice win, but Fox’s contributions to the victory stretched far beyond the late score. The rookie turned in 16:16 over 24 shifts that included a healthy dose of Steven Stamkos, and afterward his Head Coach assessed not just his goal but his entire game in saying, “I thought he was outstanding – and we’re not playing the Sisters of the Poor either, we’re playing the Lightning.”
“His poise really continues to impress me night in and night out, a guy that can step in and play with his poise and his deception,” David Quinn said. “His compete level is higher than maybe a lot of people would anticipate, and when we traded for him there was a question of, was he going to be able to compete at this level right out of the gate, and was his skating going to allow him to play right away? He answered those two questions quickly.
“I was actually stunned about a game ago, I looked at the stats and saw he only had one assist. You would think with the plays he has made, he would have a lot more points. But he had key one (Tuesday) night.”
One play that leaps to mind occurred in Ottawa in the Rangers’ second game of the season, when it was Fox’s 125-foot pass to Artemi Panarin that started the highlight goal of the season so far, Panarin-to-Zibanejad-to-Buchnevich-to-Zibanejad in the blink of an eye. If anyone ever wanted to mount an argument in favor of awarding three assists, Fox’s three-line bank pass to Panarin’s tape would provide powerful evidence.
It was this ability to start the attack, and the plays he can make with the puck, that commanded so much attention last season when Fox led the nation in points per game (1.45), was the ECAC Player of the Year and one of three Hobey Baker Award finalists as a Harvard junior. Fox, though, never had any confusion about what is important to him.
“I’ve always tried very hard to be responsible defensively, and I’ve never viewed myself as a guy who just wants offense,” Fox said. “Being a smaller offensive D-man (5-11, 181 pounds), people are quick to kind of just write you off as an actual defenseman. For me, I take pride in it. And definitely it’s nice to answer some questions that people might have had, any doubts anybody else may have had, and prove that I can play both ends well.”
“There’s a lot of different ways to defend,” Quinn said on Thursday. “I love his anticipation. He competes when he’s in a battle, regardless of the size advantage or disadvantage. He’s got quick feet, a good stick and he’s aware of his body position. A guy that young, to be able to put himself in those positions and understand that so quickly, is a great sign.”
There were signs aplenty while Fox was at Harvard, but Fox himself saw the first signs that his skills could translate well to a higher level when he traveled to Slovakia to play for the United States team at last May’s World Championships. He was teammates with Kreider and Brady Skjei for the tournament full of NHLers, at which he played eight games. Fox called it “the biggest eye-opener for me.”
“It was the first practice where I was like, ‘Let’s see if I feel super out of place, or if I feel like I fit in here,'” Fox said. “And you know, I felt pretty good. And right away from there I felt pretty confident in myself.”
“‘Easy’ would be the wrong word,” Quinn said of Fox’s jump to the NHL, “but it’s been a quicker transition than I think anybody had anticipated.”
Now Fox has two NHL points, and two NHL souvenirs to commemorate them. But to hear the Rangers’ rookie blueliner tell it, most important to him on Tuesday night were the two points.
“Your first goal is special, but the game was pretty intense and that’s a big win for us,” Fox said. “So yeah, I think I’ll definitely remember that one.”