Head coach Peter Laviolette of the New York Rangers against...

Head coach Peter Laviolette of the New York Rangers against the Dallas Stars at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 2024. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Yes, when the Rangers host the Florida Panthers Monday night at Madison Square Garden, there are two points up for grabs, and a regulation victory would pull the Blueshirts into a tie with Florida for first place overall in the NHL, with 20 games remaining.

But for the Rangers right now, the battle for first overall in the league is probably not the top priority. While that would be nice — they could hang a banner from the Garden ceiling for it — what’s most important is making sure that when the playoffs begin seven weeks from now, the Blueshirts’ game is where it will need to be for the two-month-long postseason journey toward a Stanley Cup.

So the value in the 40-17-4 Rangers matching up against the 41-16-4 Panthers on Monday is less about the two points at stake and more about sharpening the areas of their game, and the lessons to be learned about what is and what is not effective against one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

“Every game is different,’’ Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said at the morning skate about using the final 21 games of the regular season to prep for the playoffs. “The ‘D’ zone coverage that we're going against [vs.Florida] is different than the zone coverage that we faced in Toronto. And so . . . I'm not worried about Game 1 [of the playoffs] right now, with regard to how are we going to create against a ‘D’ zone coverage. We're moving from game to game and trying to get better.

“I do think that there's things that you can try and eliminate from [your] game,’’ he added. “We talked about tightening things down defensively, and making sure that we're doing the right things. You can talk about discipline. All that plays into a bigger picture.’’

Saturday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto was another test for the Rangers, similar to the one they face Monday night. On Saturday, in front of a charged-up crowd at Scotiabank Arena, against a team that had won eight of nine games coming in, the Blueshirts managed to hold the league’s leading goal-scorer, Auston Matthews, to just one assist. They also rallied from down 3-2 to tie the score on Vincent Trocheck’s second goal of the game with 1:07 left and goalie Igor Shesterkin pulled for an extra skater.

That they eventually lost in a shootout wasn’t a problem, since there are no shootouts in the playoffs. But limiting Matthews and scoring a 6-on-5 goal to tie a score late were both good signs for a team getting ready for the postseason.

“Most of the time, you're not gonna have success 6-on-5,’’ defenseman Adam Fox said after the game. “It's the nature of hockey. But when you have an opportunity, you want to capitalize, and I thought we had good pressure, good control there, and guys were in the right positions . . . To get that one, and kind of just know you have the ability to do that if you needed this, is a nice boost for us.’’

Monday’s game against the Panthers also happens to be the last game the Rangers play before Friday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Their next game is Saturday at the Garden against the Blues, and that will be the first game, presumably, that Laviolette will have his full, final roster that he will take into the postseason.

GM Chris Drury, who has made big deals to bring in reinforcements at each of the last two trade deadlines, is believed to be looking to add a top-six right wing, a third-line center and perhaps another defenseman for depth purposes.

Laviolette wasn’t interested Monday morning in talking about what may happen at the trade deadline.

“I have a ton of confidence in the guys that are taking the ice tonight, getting ready to play,’’ he said.

More Rangers

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME