At around 11pm on Saturday night, the New York Rangers were licking their wounds after a thorough beatdown by the St. Louis Blues. Today, after a dominant win over the Islanders, playoff hopes are renewed and any discussion about the draft lottery is forbidden.
It’s crazy. This season is a roller coaster. Crazy wins, embarrassing losses. Unexpected domination followed by weak efforts. There is no doubt that the New York Rangers’ win over the Islanders was a work of art, but what does it really mean?
The reaction to the win was infectious. Larry Brooks in the New York Post wrote how the Rangers had to find a way to keep Chris Kreider a Ranger. On NHL Radio, it was declared that the rebuild is officially over and the Blueshirts are thisclose to being a playoff team. Folks, this is blissful insanity. A big loss to the Islanders on Thursday and it will be time for pessimism again.
Here is the reality. The Rangers have a very slim chance of making the post-season this year. They will have to go on a run unlike anything that they have done this season. While it is very unlikely that this can happen, there are a couple reasons to hold out hope. The single biggest reason is a shining star named Artemi Panarin.
Hockey savants knew he was good, but no one knew that he was this good. He is now only four points behind the best hockey player on the planet and three points behind his linemate. He is simply unstoppable and what is amazing is he keeps getting better. If any one player can singlehandedly push the Rangers into the post-season, it is Panarin.
Another reason is the Blueshirt’s defense. Leading the league in scoring is fantastic, but considering how young this group is, it is unbelievable. Adam Fox is everything he was billed to be and more and he has to be in the Calder Trophy conversation. Ryan Lindgren has been an unexpected force and a physical presence. All he needs are boxing lessons. Anthony DeAngelo is an offensive weapon and while his defense still can cause heart palpitations, he has become a bona fide NHL defenseman. Jacob Trouba may be overpaid, but he eats minutes and is becoming the dominant two-way defenseman the team has needed for years.
Finally, it’s been a short audition, but it looks like Igor Shesterkin is the real thing and now the Blueshirts have an abundance of riches in net. Can Shesterkin go on a Jordan Binnington-like run? He’s done it in the KHL and the AHL, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t do it in the NHL.
So, if all of the stars are aligned, the playoff dream could become a reality.
Now, the actual reality. Larry Brooks is absolutely right that the Rangers should try to keep Chris Kreider, but the odds of this happening are slim to none. There is no cap space to pay him the salary he will be offered as a free agent this summer. If Kreider wants to stay a Ranger and is willing to take a huge home town discount, he could stay, but what are the odds of that happening?
Also, don’t believe that if the Rangers deal him at the deadline, that he will take less money to come back to New York. That just doesn’t happen. A lifer is a lifer until he plays somewhere else and realizes that it’s not so bad. Lifelong Rangers like Mats Zuccarello, Dan Girardi and Kevin Hayes were welcomed by their new teams and forgot about loyalty to the Rangers as quickly as they were discarded by the Blueshirts.
What the win over the Islanders showed is that the Rangers are close, much closer than anyone would have thought they would be back in February 2018 when the rebuild was announced. This is a team that is a year away from serious playoff contention.
There is a lot of work to be done and tough decisions to be made. The truth is the days of trading assets at the deadline for draft picks is over. Now, the return has to be players who can help the team as soon as next year. It has to be that way because the Rangers have a sublime player who is in his prime and they need to exploit that.
The good news is even if the Islanders overwhelm the Blueshirts Thursday night on Long Island, nothing changes. We’ve seen enough to know that this is a team that is getting better nightly. We are watching the team grow before our eyes. The lessons they learned from their loss to St. Louis, they applied in the win over the Isles. They are resilient and do not give up.
Something good is happening at Madison Square Garden and it should bring hope to every Ranger fan. It may not be this year, but the lessons learned on the way will make them a better team in years to come. And if they can beat the Islanders Thursday and against next week, the giddiness from last night’s win will look tepid. We can only hope.