New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant against the Toronto...

New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

TAMPA, Fla. – Games against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday and the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes Sunday may look to most like a huge measuring stick weekend for the Rangers, but coach Gerard Gallant didn’t see it that way.

"I don't have to learn any more about our team,’’ Gallant said at Saturday’s morning skate at Amalie Arena. "I know what our team's all about. We've been good all year long. And (Saturday and Sunday) are going to be tough games, we're playing two great teams. Go play and do the best we can and see what happens. But our players don't have to prove anything more to me. When we play a good game, we're as good as anybody in that league.’’

That sounded like pretty bold talk, especially coming from the coach of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017. But Gallant seemed pretty relaxed when he spoke.

Three quarters of the way through his first season with the Rangers (38-18-5), the veteran coach seems fully comfortable now. He’s relaxed enough to joke around at his press conferences, and he seems less guarded, and more willing now to share his feelings on how his team is going. If they won and didn’t play well, he’ll criticize them; if they lost but played well – as they did Thursday against the Islanders – he’ll praise their effort.

He knows the Rangers are looking like a lock to make the playoffs this spring, but he also knows it’s not done until it’s done. So he’s not starting to prepare for the playoffs just yet.

"Well, we’ve got to get in the playoffs first,’’ he said. "There's still 21 games left (before Saturday’s game) and we've got to play good hockey. We’ve got to make sure we get in. So that's what a coach is looking forward to: playing good games like we played the last two, getting as many points as you can get, and get into a playoff spot. We're in a playoff spot right now, but you're not in till you’re in. When there's a little ‘X’ beside us (in the standings). I'll be happy.’’

Barclay Goodrow, who won the Cup the last two seasons with the Lightning, agreed with Gallant that now is not the time to get caught up in looking at the big picture. He said the Rangers still need to focus on each game as it comes up.

"All you can control is the effort you put forward that night,’’ he said. "If you start looking too far in advance, and you let games slip away… next thing you know, you're not where you want to be in the standings, or your game's not looking how it should be.

"We've been doing a pretty good job of … just looking at the current game on hand, and not worrying what's coming the next week, or next month, or trade deadline, or whatever,’’ he said. "We're focused on the task at hand, and doing our best to execute that.’’

Mika Zibanejad was asked if he likes the fact that the best teams in the league are respecting the Rangers as belonging in the league’s elite with them.

"I don't really pay attention to what other teams or other people are saying about us, or the way they look at us,’’ he said. "We're just kind of focused on this last stretch here. As cliche as it sounds, we’re trying to take it game by game and really put ourselves in a good spot, and keep improving and trying to string a couple of good games together and try to get some momentum.’’

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