Mika Zibanejad could be taking over first-line center duties this season. (Photo: Getty Images)

Opening night is here for the New York Rangers as they host the Colorado Avalanche at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night (7 p.m. on MSG) to kick off their 2017-18 campaign.

 

Necessary tweaks have been made to a roster that bowed out of the postseason in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Ottawa Senators during the spring. Not only is this team looking to just make the playoffs for the eighth-consecutive year, but to finally get one of their greatest players in franchise history, goalie Henrik Lundqvist, a Stanley Cup. 

 

Here are three things you should watch for this season and what the Rangers' lines might look like during the early portions of this season:

 

 

 

1. A bolstered defense

 

One of the Rangers’ largest issues to address this offseason was a defense that left goalie Henrik Lundqvist out to dry on countless occasions. 

They did just that by signing free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, who can also quarterback the power play, and re-signing Brendan Smith. 

Brady Skjei holds the promise of being the future No. 1 defenseman of this unit while captain Ryan McDonagh will provide steady leadership to the blue line.

 

2. Zibby taking over center stage

Entering his second season with the Rangers, center Mika Zibanejad is about to experience an entirely different role. 

After battling injuries that limited his 2016-17 season so badly that he was a fringe player on New York’s playoff roster, Zibanejad was given a vote of confidence by the franchise with a new five-year, $26.7 million deal during the offseason. 

Expect him to take over first-line center duties as the dynamic forward provides a blistering shot that can create instant offense when given an inch of space.

 

 If all goes to plan, he’ll breeze past his previous career high of 21 goals.

 

3. Which King will we see?

For the first time in his stellar career, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist looked mediocre if not bad at times last season, prompting Antti Raanta to step up and provide valuable minutes from the crease during the first half of the season. 

At 35, Lundqvist is still one of the top goalies in the NHL, but it will be imperative for the Rangers to keep him fresh throughout the season. That means starting under 60 games.

An improved defense will certainly take some pressure of Lundqvist, who was on an island at times when put under pressure.

With Raanta joining the Arizona Coyotes, new backup Ondrej Pavelec will have to step up and make sure New York has a capable stopper behind Lundqvist. 

If he underperforms, Lundqvist and the Rangers could run out of gas well before April and an expected playoff run.