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SportsColumnistsColin Stephenson

Rangers proving they are legit contenders in the race for the playoffs 

The Rangers' Mika Zibanejad celebrates with teammates after

The Rangers' Mika Zibanejad celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL game against the Flyers on Thursday in Philadelphia. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

The schedule has certainly helped. A game against hapless Buffalo, and a couple of blowout wins over the suddenly struggling Flyers, and just like that, the Rangers are back in the playoff hunt.

But are they legit? Is this sustainable?

Well, if Mika Zibanejad really is back to being himself, and if Igor Shesterkin is going to be healthy the rest of the way, then yes, the Rangers are for real. And they are a legitimate threat to finish in the top four of the rugged East Division and earn a playoff spot.

"I think they're very committed,’’ acting coach Kris Knoblauch said following last Saturday’s win over Washington, whom the Rangers face again in D.C. Sunday. "I think they feel that they have an opportunity to make the playoffs, and they need to play well throughout the final stretch. And I think there's also some belief they can play like they did last year the second half the year, where they went on quite a roll.’’

The Rangers were one of the NHL’s hottest teams in the second half of the 2019-20 season, going 18-10-1 over their final 29 games before the season came to an abrupt end in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And the two biggest reasons for that breakout second half were Zibanejad, who finished on an absolute tear with 23 goals in his final 22 games, and Shesterkin, who went 10-2, with a .932 save percentage after being called up from the minor leagues right after New Year’s.

So, if the 27-year-old Zibanejad, after a hellacious struggle the first half of this season, is back to being the player he has been for the past two or three years, and the 25-year-old Shesterkin being healthy and ready to be spectacular in the goal, that sets the Rangers up for a furious finish over the final 23 games.

In the five games prior to Saturday, Zibanejad had two six-point games (and two hat tricks) against the Flyers, and a total of seven goals, eight assists and 15 points. That bumped his season statistics up to 10-16-26 in 32 games, which is much more like it for him. He had managed just two goals and five assists in the first 20 games, and he endured a 19-game stretch where he scored just one goal — into an empty net.

He was even benched for a while by coach David Quinn during the second period of a game in New Jersey on March 4.

But after sitting out the first 11 minutes of the second period in that game, Zibanejad began to show signs he was coming back to life. He got an assist late in that game, got his third goal of the season two games later in Pittsburgh, and three games after that, had two assists in the 4-0 win over Boston that closed out a six-game road trip.

Artemi Panarin returning from his nine-game leave of absence was the headline for that game, but those two Zibanejad assists were a major development, too. Suddenly, with Panarin back, and Zibanejad back to being himself, the Rangers once again had two lines who would threaten opposing teams.

"I think everyone's playing with confidence,’’ Knoblauch said after Monday’s win over Buffalo. "I think they're playing good defensively. But I think the biggest reason why the offense is coming was Zibanejad. Now you have that line playing like they did last year, and they're going to contribute. And I think [Ryan] Strome, Panarin, throughout the year, (have been) pretty consistent. But now with Zibanejad playing as well as he is, with [Chris] Kreider and [Pavel Buchnevich], they're one of the best lines in the league right now. So I think that's the biggest turnaround.’’

It's not the only factor that makes them a playoff contender. Shesterkin, who was injured in that same March 4 game in which Zibanejad was benched, made 40 saves in his return to the lineup Thursday, the 8-3 win over the Flyers. He missed 10 games with a strained groin and the Rangers went 5-4-1 with Alexandar Georgiev and Keith Kinkaid splitting time in net.

Having Shesterkin back, behind an Adam Fox-led defense that has been simply tremendous, means the Rangers are going to be tough to score against. Having Zibanejad and Panarin clicking — along with their pals Buchnevich, Strome and Kreider — means they’re going to tough to keep off the scoresheet at the other end.

They’re 1-3-2 against Pittsburgh, and 1-2 against the Islanders. But they’ve basically held their own against Boston (2-3-1) and done well (3-1) against Washington. And they’re whole now.

So yes, they have a real chance to make the playoffs. Skeptics will ask, if the Rangers are going to make the playoffs, which of the top four teams is going to be out? The simple answer to that would be that isn’t the Rangers’ problem.

New York Sports