Hartnett: Rangers Rookie Brett Howden Turning Heads

Rangers center Brett Howden (21) celebrates after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks during first period on Oct. 11, 2018, at Madison Square Garden.
Photo credit USA TODAY Images

David Quinn’s first win as Rangers head coach was fueled in part by a promising rookie.

Brett Howden has impressed in his first four games in a Blueshirts uniform. On Thursday, the Rangers earned a 3-2 overtime win over the San Jose Sharks, and Howden extended his point streak to three games.

The 20-year-old center has recorded three points (two goals, one assist) through his first four NHL games, while winning 59.6 percent of faceoffs.

Look beyond the stats, and the eye test is also pointing in the right direction. Did you see the way he hounded the puck off Brent Burns’ stick? Howden pilfered the puck from the 2017 Norris Trophy winner, carried it into the offensive zone and set up a scoring chance for Jimmy Vesey.

Howden was in opposing goaltender Aaron Dell’s face all night and continually caused havoc around the crease. He beat Burns to the net-front and then scored a jaw-dropping, backhanded, behind-the-legs goal. You see it and think, 'Wow, this kid’s got confidence!'"

After the game, Howden appeared to chalk up the goal to luck. Maybe he’ll realize how special the goal was once he sees it on NHL Network’s plays of the night.

“It is kind of a scramble,” Howden said of his goal. “A loose puck popped out, and I just kind of tried putting it towards the net. I didn’t try to make it look pretty or anything. I just tried getting it to the net, and luckily it found a way in.”

His goal-scoring ability, work ethic, face-off proficiency and intelligence on both ends of the ice add up to a lot of hockey player. That’s why Quinn kept sending him over the bench. His 17:34 TOI was second only to Mats Zuccarello among Rangers forwards. Howden played against the tough matchups, and he thrived.

“He’s impressed me since the first time I met him when training camp started,” Quinn said. “I am not surprised by what he’s doing and how much confidence he’s gained from game to game. There’s no nonsense to his game in addition to having great skill. That’s a big component to having success at this level. You can’t have any BS in your game. When you have that skillset, play fast and have a quick set of feet and hands, you’re going to do special things.”

Through four games, Henrik Lundqvist has been the Rangers’ best player. That’s no surprise. He usually is in both good times and bad. Lundqvist has stopped 97 of 103 shots faced this season to the tune of a .942 save percentage. He’s also playing an out-of-this-world .964 percent at even strength.

Among the skaters, it’s Howden who has made the greatest impact. Pavel Buchnevich has been very good, Chris Kreider is off to a fine start, Jesper Fast and Zuccarello are demonstrating their trademark reliability. But it’s Howden who is turning heads.

General manager Jeff Gorton spoke glowingly of Howden after the Rangers acquired him as part of a blockbuster deal that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“He's a center we’ve coveted for a while,” Gorton said in February. “He’s a big guy, rangy, a good skater. We like his upside and his skill, but we also like his character. We like the fact that he plays against the better players, that he can check and do a lot of different things. He’s a real good person, so we’re really happy with him, his ability and his future.”

Looking back, Gorton’s words sound almost prophetic, as Howden is doing all these things at the NHL level. Keep in mind, he was talking about a player whose only taste of professional hockey was five games for the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.

I’m not sure if Gorton or Quinn could have envisioned the rookie center adapting to the speed of the NHL this quickly while getting the better of all-world opposition.

Howden made his mark in Quinn’s first win, and it looks like he’s on the path to becoming an instrumental part of the first-year coach’s plans.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​.