An unlikely three-game sweep of their Western Canada swing through Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton left the rebuilding Rangers just three points out of a playoff spot with 16 games to play entering Sunday’s games. But coach Alain Vigneault is not interested in getting anybody’s hopes up just yet.
“You know what? I’m going to make sure that we . . . re-energize tomorrow, have a good practice, and focus on Winnipeg,’’ Vigneault said after Saturday night’s 3-2 win over the Oilers. “That’s what we have to do. We’ve got to concentrate on the next opponent, and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.’’
Vigneault’s one-day-at-a-time approach served the Rangers well in the week following the trade deadline, which saw the Rangers push the reset button after shipping out captain Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and defenseman Nick Holden prior to the deadline. Energized by the play of incoming forwards Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov, the Rangers were also no doubt unburdened, mentally, of the stress they had been under once club management announced Feb. 8 that the organization would switch its focus to the future.
“For weeks, I think a lot of us were waiting for a big [trade deadline] day, especially me,’’ said Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 100 of 106 shots in beating Vancouver 6-5 and Calgary 3-1 in the first two games of the trip. “It’s tough to be in the right mindset. It is what it is now, and you try to make the most [of the situation]. You try to have fun, as well. It’s been a few weeks where it’s been tough, and no fun at all.’’
Although the Rangers certainly enjoyed stringing a few wins together and be able to smile and laugh again after enduring a seven-game losing streak, it must be pointed out that Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton aren’t exactly the 1980s Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Vancouver and Edmonton have worse records than the Rangers, who are 30-30-6, and Calgary is fading, on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and missing injured No. 1 goalie Mike Smith.
Things will be a lot tougher for the Rangers this week, when the high-flying Jets visit the Garden on Tuesday and then the Rangers go to Tampa Thursday for a reunion with McDonagh, Miller, and fellow ex-Rangers Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman and the rest of the Lightning. Tampa Bay has the best record in the league.
For the Rangers, now is the time to channel their inner Jim Mora (“Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs!’’), and instead of taking on the mental burden of chasing an unlikely postseason berth, just play hard, with a free mind, like they have nothing to lose. Because at this point, they don’t.
“So, you know it’s a long shot,’’ Marc Staal said of the notion of chasing a playoff spot. “I think what [the successful road trip] does is give us some confidence; lets us enjoy coming to the rink, knowing that we can compete in some games with the guys we have now; knowing we can win some games. And now, we just see where it goes.’’