After their stirring win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers are firmly ensconced in third place in the Metropolitan Division. They still have an outside shot at catching the New Jersey Devils or Carolina Hurricanes, but in the “loser point” NHL, it won’t be easy.
For all of the gnashing of teeth over the Blueshirts’ 2-5-1 stretch at the end of February, they have since rebounded, winning four of five and six of nine, getting points in seven of their last nine. How solid is their hold on the third place? The team with the only realistic hope of catching the Rangers is the Penguins. If Pittsburgh wins 10 of their last 14 games they will finish with 98 points. The Rangers need to go a mediocre 5-8-1 to finish with 99 points. That ain’t happening.
Reasons to Believe
The Rangers have frustrated their fans all season, losing games they should win and winning games they should lose. What should encourage us is their stellar record against the NHL’s better teams.
They have gone 14-4-4 against the top 10 teams in the NHL and that includes three losses to the Boston Bruins. So, take out the Bruins and they have lost only once in regulation in 19 games to the 10 best teams in the league.
How have they fared against teams currently in the playoff picture? Their record against the teams currently in the postseason as of today is 18-10-6. That’s 10 regulation losses in 34 games. If the Panther can catch the Islanders, that record improves to 19-8-6.
That bad stretch
Much of the loss of faith in the team’s postseason prospects came from their play from February 18 to March 4, a stretch of eight games when they went 2-5-1. They followed that by needing extra time to beat Montreal and Buffalo and went four straight games without holding a lead in regulation.
Much can be explained by the chaos that engulfed the team around the trade deadline. Cap-induced roster manipulation was compounded by Ryan Lindgren’s injury and K’Andre Miller’s ill-advised suspension.
They played a stretch of games down to four or five defensemen with Niko Mikkola and Ben Harpur thrust into unexpected key roles. It’s no mystery that they ran out of gas against Ottawa and Boston, games that they were in until the third period.
After getting pulled after allowing five goals against Washington on February 25, Igor Shesterkin looks like he is returning to form. After that game, he had a .909 Save Percentage (Sv%) and 2.67 Goals Against Average (GAA) for the season. At even strength, his numbers were a so-so .919 Sv% and 2.40 GAA.
In his seven games since he has improved to a .916 Sv% and 2.38 GAA. At even strength, he has a .927 Sv% and a 2.14 GAA.
Of the 25 goalies who have played 300 minutes or more since February 26, at all strengths, Shesterkin is seventh overall in Goals Against Average (2.38) and Save Percentage (.916).
Shesterkin is still not playing at the same level as last season, but it’s getting better as is the overall team defense and that bodes well for the postseason.
That elusive team chemistry appears to be coming together with the lines gelling. The “Kid Line” is in a scoring slump, but the positive has to be that when they come out of it, the team will have four lines that are solid offensive threats.
Ryan Lindgren is making progress after missing eight straight games. Better to let him heal completely so he will be ready for the playoffs. There is no need to rush him back to action.
The big if
In Gary Bettman’s dream of NHL parity, the playoffs look to be an incredibly difficult slough to the top. It’s a fact that to even get to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Blueshirts will have to get past either Carolina, New Jersey, or Pittsburgh, all daunting foes. Then they get the play either Boston, Tampa, Toronto, or the Islanders. That’s with the standings today.
Are they thin on defense? Absolutely. Are they lacking in team toughness? Maybe (though they went toe-to-toe with the Penguins). Can Shesterkin regain his Vezina form? He has to.
The good news is the Rangers appear to be gelling at the right time. The experience that they gained in last year’s playoffs will be invaluable. They’ve added Stanley Cup champions Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Remember last year? They barely got past a Pittsburgh team that lost Sidney Crosby and their top two goalies. They barely got past a Carolina team playing their second-string netminder. And then they blew a two-game lead to a battle-hardened Tampa team.
It won’t be easy, but it’s better than sitting here wondering about the odds of winning the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.