COLUMBUS, Ohio — The skeptics may not believe that the Rangers are legitimate contenders for a playoff spot, but the Rangers themselves certainly do.
“I think it’s always been there,’’ an exhausted-looking Mika Zibanejad said in a happy locker room after the Rangers’ 3-1 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night. “I think we’ve shown throughout this season that we can play good hockey and beat any team, really, when we stick to our game. And I think when you start winning a couple, you get more of that belief in the locker room.’’
The win over Columbus completed a sweep of the Rangers’ three-game road trip and extended their winning streak to a season-high four games.
They pulled within seven points of the Blue Jackets and Flyers, who currently hold the two wild-card playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers have two games in hand on Columbus and one on Philadelphia.
Chris Kreider’s goal with 3:11 remaining broke a 1-1 tie. The Blue Jackets were called for too many men on the ice with 5:13 remaining and Kreider scored two seconds after the power play expired. It was his seventh goal in the last nine games and 10th in 15.
Ryan Strome added an empty-net goal with 1:11 left.
“We’ve really made some great strides and just continue to play good hockey and at a clutch time right now,’’ coach David Quinn said. “[Thursday] night, coming back the way we did [in a 4-3 shootout win over Minnesota], and then tonight scoring late to win the game. We’ve talked about the fact that we have come together as a team over the last few months.”
Friday’s victory came with newly anointed No. 1 goaltender Igor Shesterkin missing his second straight game with an ankle injury and with the Rangers missing their fourth-leading scorer, defenseman Tony DeAngelo, who suffered an injury to his right shoulder Thursday.
The Blue Jackets certainly have their own injuries and weren’t likely to be too sympathetic to the Rangers, but missing DeAngelo and Shesterkin meant other people had to step up in their place.
Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev was one who did. Once Shesterkin was called up from the minor leagues on Jan. 6, Georgiev looked the most likely to be the odd man out in the Rangers’ three-goaltender situation, and there was plenty of speculation that he could be traded before the Feb. 24 deadline.
He still could, certainly, but Quinn needed Georgiev to come through Thursday and Friday, and he did. He made 36 saves against the Blue Jackets and improved to 14-11-1.
Georgiev was asked what he’s taken from the uncertainty of the three-goalie rotation. “Just that you have to be ready whenever you get the chance to play,’’ he said. “These are very important games for our team, and you have to be prepared every time.’’
Pavel Buchnevich’s second goal in as many nights — and his sixth in 10 games — gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead 22 seconds into the first period, but Oliver Bjorkstrand’s rebound goal with 1:08 left in the second period tied it at 1-1.
The Rangers will face the Bruins on Sunday afternoon at the Garden before going back on the road against Chicago on Wednesday and Carolina on Friday.