New York Rangers face a gauntlet in the stretch run

The Blueshirts face their toughest stretch of the season yet as they play five playoff teams in a row. They have played all five earlier this year. What can those matchups tell us about what is to come?

New York Islanders v New York Rangers on Sunday
New York Islanders v New York Rangers on Sunday / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages

The New York Rangers’ quest for the President’s Trophy is officially in full swing but will face some serious challenges over the next few weeks. The Blueshirts play 14 games in the next 28 days as they try to overtake the Boston Bruins as the league’s top team and hold off the Carolina Hurricanes for the Metro lead. The next five of those games are the toughest, with the Jets, Bruins, Panthers, Flyers, and Avalanche all on the docket. Each of these teams are in playoff races of their own and have already skated against the Rangers this season, generating (mostly) fond memories for the MSG faithful. That said, let’s look back so that we can try to figure out what Rangers’ fans can expect over the next five games.  

Nathan MacKinnon, Connor Hellebuyck
Nathan MacKinnon vs. Connor Hellebuyck / Matthew Stockman/GettyImages

Central Showdowns: vs. Winnipeg 3/19, @ Colorado 3/28.

The Rangers have fared well against the Central division this year, going 9-3-1 overall. Two of those wins are bigger than the rest, though. Early in the season, the Rangers famously capped off an undefeated (5-0) Western Conference road trip with a 3-2 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets. Mika Zibanejad was the hero in this one, sweeping home a one-timer off a slick feed from Artemi Panarin with just 26 seconds left in the extra period. The key to this one was getting three pucks past Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck, who only stopped 23/26 shots in an evenly-played game. Winnipeg has improved a lot since then as they are now one of the top teams in the West, but the Rangers capitalizing on what few opportunities they get will be crucial against one of the league’s top defensive teams.

The Colorado Avalanche also required overtime to take down, although much more recently. In their first game after the All-Star break, Jonathan Quick started in net for the Rangers with Igor Shesterkin in the midst of his mid-season slump. Quick stood on his head in this one, stopping 32/33 shots and keeping the Rangers in it early as the Avalanche out skated them This time Alexis Lafrenière was the hero, potting the OT winner for a 2-1 win to set the tone for the second half of the year. No matter who is in net for this one, the Rangers must do a better job of establishing themselves early against Colorado and not relying on goaltending to bail them out.

David Pastrnak
Bruins superstar David Pastrnak / Winslow Townson/GettyImages

Bullying Boston: @ Boston 3/21

The Rangers have dominated Boston this year, shattering my reality as a fan who has watched them struggled against the Bruins for years. I do feel slightly back for the Bruins as their first loss came at MSG back in November with Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick both scoring their only goals of the season. I mean, come on, the odds of that happening are pretty low. New York dominated the game for the most part, as they out-shot and out-hit the Bruins, won 58.6% of faceoffs, and had 10 takeaways enroute to a 7-4 win. Where the Rangers did slip back into their ways was giving up two goals in 24 seconds after leading 2-0 early, and then surrendering another one 26 seconds into the second period to tie the game back up at three. 31 shots against is not an astronomical number, but two of Boston’s goals were off of defensive breakdowns off rebounds and the other two were a one-timer and leaving David Pastrnak too much space.

To the Rangers’ credit, they seemed to learn from these mistakes when the played the Bruins again in Boston in December. They allowed only 22 shots on goal and shut down the Bruins’ big boys but ran into Jeremy Swayman in peak form. He stopped 32/33 shots in regulation, with the Rangers not breaking through until a Vincent Trocheck PPG midway through the third period. Shesty stepped up as well, allowing only one goal on 22 shots to get the game to overtime, where Trocheck’s second of the game won it. With two vastly different games against the Bruins, it is hard to pinpoint what to expect in game no. 3 on Thursday. I will say that since both of Boston’s goaltenders are excellent and rarely make mistakes, this may be one of the few times I would be ok with the Rangers making an extra pass instead of firing everything at the net.

Matt Rempe
Matt Rempe celebrates his first NHL goal vs. the Philadelphia Flyers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

Frisky Flyers: vs. Philadelphia 3/26

No one thought the Flyers would be as good as they are this season. John Tortorella has them playing hard and making opponent’s beat them instead of beating themselves. The Rangers have played the Flyers twice this year and felt the brunt of this Philly team. In game one, the Rangers were shorthanded six times but shut the Flyers’ powerplay down. Mika scored twice (both even strength if you can believe it) and Chris Kreider had the other in a 3-1 win at the Wells Fargo Center. Despite being outshot 37-19, Igor stood on his head and made sure three was enough to walk out with the win.

In February, the Blueshirts returned to the City of Brotherly love for perhaps the most entertaining game of the year. Laffy opened the scoring and Matt Rempe fought Nic Deslauriers and scored the game winning goal, his first in the NHL. Despite once again being drastically outshot (40-24), Igor made 39 saves and saved the Rangers’ bacon (with a little help from Sean Couturier at the end). Next week, the Rangers need to be far more defensively responsible. Allowing 77 shots in two games is never good and it stems from the Flyers’ desperation and grit. If the defense can up the intensity they will make whoever is in net’s life a lot easier.

Brandon Montour
Panthers' defenseman Brandon Montour / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages


Problems with the Panthers: vs. Florida 3/23

The Florida Panthers are the only team in this stretch that the Rangers have lost to this year. They’ve lost twice, in fact. Right before the New Year, the Rangers went down to Sunrise and lost a close one 4-3. Mika Zibanejad scored a shorthanded goal with 7:45 to go in the third to tie the game at three, but Carter Verhaeghe beat Jonathan Quick just 1:22 later for what proved to be the winning goal. Before each Panther goal, the Rangers either turned lost a board battle or turned the puck over in their own end. Being strong with the puck is crucial against Florida as they are the league’s second most physical team in terms of hits doled out.

At MSG earlier this month, the method of defeat was a little different. The Rangers brought the physicality this time but still struggled to cover their defensive assignments. Sam Reinhart got free twice in the span of 2:45 to turn a 1-0 Rangers’ lead into a 2-1 deficit. Kreids tied the game on the powerplay later in the period, but Ryan Lomberg beat Shesterkin on a wrister from outside the dots early in the third to put the Panthers ahead for good in a 4-2 loss. The boys played better overall in this game, but need to tighten up their d-zone coverage and continue to be physical going into what would be a pivotal game in the race for the President’s Trophy.

Ryan Lindgren, Jacob Trouba, Morgan Rielly
The Rangers will miss their two most physical defensemen / Chris Tanouye/GettyImages

Moral of the story:

The Rangers need to keep up the intensity and be responsible in their own end. Sure, these are core tenets of any successful hockey team, but they especially apply to this group of guys now that Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren will likely miss this stretch run. It is important that they are competitive in every one of these games to keep the momentum going into the playoffs. This was a problem last year as they last three of their final four games to limp into their series against the Devils. This team has proven they can deal with more adversity, and their record against good teams (with the exception of Florida) is promising. In the coming days, we will see what this Rangers team is truly made of.