Rangers show good signs of rounding into playoff form
If anyone took the Rangers’ four-goal performance in the second period of Saturday’s 6-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden as a message to the NHL as to how scary the new-look Blueshirts offense can be, Artemi Panarin would suggest those people pump the brakes a little.
“I mean yeah, you want to say that after this game, but . . . it's the NHL,’’ he said after his two-goal performance Saturday. “Today, everything’s going well; tomorrow, sometimes not.’’
The Rangers didn’t have any time to rest on their laurels after the big win Saturday, though, as they were right back at it Sunday at the Garden with a game against the Nashville Predators, who are still in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.
At 40-19-10 entering Sunday, the Rangers are comfortably in third place in the Metropolitan Division and held a 10-point lead over the Islanders, who are in the first wild-card playoff spot in the East. So the playoffs are almost a foregone conclusion. But with 13 games to go, including Sunday’s, coach Gerard Gallant wasn’t about to declare his team playoff-ready just yet.
“Two weeks ago, we . . . weren't playing well at all, and things weren't going good,’’ Gallant said. “It changes out quick.’’
That said, though, Gallant cautiously admitted it looks as if "the chemistry is coming together’’ for the Rangers, who carried a three-game win streak and a six-game point streak (5-0-1) into Sunday’s game.
The new top line of Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Vladimir Tarasenko has put together three strong games in a row, and all three had a goal Saturday. And Patrick Kane, whose acquisition from Chicago had forced the Rangers to do so much work to create space under the salary cap, is starting to learn his teammates.
Kane had two assists Saturday, setting up Chris Kreider and Panarin with cross-slot feeds that found both players wide open at the back post. And the 16-year veteran sounded like a man who has figured out where his new teammates are going to be when he has the puck.
“I mean, you know, ‘Kreids’ drives the net,’’ Kane said of his pass to Kreider that made it 4-0 and chased Pittsburgh’s starting goalie Tristan Jarry from the net. “That play was a three-on-two. You've kind of seen that play a few times, where [the Penguins] like to squeeze their defenseman over and kind of take the two guys. And think it was in Pittsburgh, [Vincent Trocheck] hit Kreids through the seam, and he had an open shot.
“It was a similar play tonight, but [Trocheck] kind of hit the middle guy, and I tried to chip it over,’’ he continued. “It got blocked, but I know [Kreider's] going back door, so you just try to get it to him on his forehand. He's not going to miss too many of those.’’
Saturday’s game was an example of how things can look if everything goes right for the Rangers. Goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who got a well-deserved night off Sunday as Jaroslav Halak started, made 33 saves to earn the shutout in what may have been his finest performance of the season. Shesterkin has won his last five starts, allowing nine goals and posting a save percentage of .942 as he begins to resemble his 2022 self with the playoffs approaching.
“He's been in a pretty good rhythm the last . . . roughly two or three weeks, and has played really well,’’ Gallant said. “He's in a really good spot lately, for sure. And our team is in a good spot. So it's good timing. But again, there's still, what, 13 left?’’
Notes & quotes: Defenseman Ryan Lindgren missed his 11th straight game with an upper-body injury, but Gallant said in his pregame media briefing that he believes Lindgren is likely to return to the lineup on Tuesday, when the Rangers host the Carolina Hurricanes at the Garden.