Rangers players celebrate an empty-net goal by center Vincent Trocheck...

Rangers players celebrate an empty-net goal by center Vincent Trocheck in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

They say it’s not how you start but how you finish. And while the Rangers have a long way to go this season before they are finished, they can feel quite satisfied with the way they wrapped the pre-Christmas portion of the campaign.

The Rangers won eight of their last nine games, capped by their 5-3 comeback victory over the Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

The late surge sent the Rangers into the four-day Christmas break on a high, feeling good about themselves and their 19-11-5 record, and feeling as though they are back to where they were always supposed to be — in a playoff spot.

“I think all of us, we knew we are a good team,’’ fourth-year forward Kaapo Kakko said after scoring the game-winning goal on Thursday. “We are good players. And I think all the guys who played here last year also, we know we can do that, and we just think a little more [about the] little things on the ice you need to do better. And I think those are the things, if we do them, we can win more games.’’

Coming off a 52-win, 110-point regular season and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final last spring, the Rangers didn’t expect to struggle the way they did for the first two months of this season. They hit so many goalposts and crossbars, it was as if they were shooting pucks with magnets in them.

Goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who was unbelievable in his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2021-22, was mostly just good during the first 25 games, not superhuman.

The Rangers found ways to lose in the first 26 games rather than finding ways to win, as they so often did last season. So many nights this season, after another stunning loss, they were left to speak about how one bad period had done them in. Or they’d say they had played well enough to win, and that if they just kept doing what they were doing, they’d be OK.

Then things turned. After a loss to the Devils at the Garden on Nov. 28 that dropped their record to 10-9-4, Shesterkin blamed himself, saying he was “ashamed’’ at how he was playing. Five days later, in a 5-2 loss at the Garden to a lowly Chicago team that had entered the game on an eight-game winless streak, captain Jacob Trouba fought twice and threw his helmet against the boards as he walked off the ice after his second fight.

The Rangers, 11-10-5 at that point, came back in their next game to beat St. Louis, 6-4, and start a seven-game winning streak. More than a few players pointed to Trouba’s getting angry as a turning point for them.

At the same time, Shesterkin seemed to pick up his game and it seemed as if the Rangers started getting some breaks to go their way.

When coach Gerard Gallant was asked what is different about the team now, he pointed to improved confidence and improved play overall. But he added that luck has been a factor, too.

“We’re getting some puck luck,’’ he said. “Even though we’re still hitting goalposts, we’re getting some puck luck, and we didn’t have that for most of the first 20, 25 games of the season. I hate saying that, but that’s what I truly believe. Our record should have been better than what it was the first 25 games.’’

The record is more like what it was expected to be now, and the players think it can be better.

“I think we’re much closer to a good game, I would say that,’’ Artemi Panarin said. “I don’t know how we have to play to play perfectly, because it’s hockey . . . Some bounces go wrong anyway. But we’re better right now, for sure. I feel better confidence. Everyone feels better.’’

Maybe no one feels better than Kakko, whose giveaway early in the second period Thursday led to Mathew Barzal’s breakaway goal that gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead. The 21-year-old Finn overcame that gaffe and made up for it by scoring the game-winner, his fifth goal in eight games.

Kakko entered the break with nine goals in the season’s first 35 games, which projects to 21 over 82 games. That would double his career high of 10, set in his COVID-shortened rookie year of 2019-20.

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