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Rangers' expectations for 2020-21 season: Make the playoffs

Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin at training camp in

Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin at training camp in Tarrytown, N.Y., on Wednesday. Credit: Kyle Dorony/NY Rangers

To quote the most famous line ever uttered by former NFL football coach Jim Mora:

"Playoffs?! Don’t talk about playoffs!’’

Well, forgive the Rangers, who open the 2020-21 season Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., MSG) against the rival Islanders, if they are willing to disregard Mora’s advice. Nearly three years after the organization sent out that famous letter to the fans announcing it was time to rebuild, the reconstruction is nearly complete. There is a new No. 1 goaltender in place, an MVP finalist and an emerging, true No. 1 center leading the way, and a couple of stud teenagers picked No. 1 and No. 2 overall the last two years ready to make noise in the league.

The rebuild now is looking very much as though it is in the final stages, and the time seems right for the Rangers to talk about playoffs.

"Obviously, our expectations are to make the playoffs,’’ coach David Quinn said Wednesday, as the team wrapped up its final practice before the season starts.

In theory, making the playoffs should be the next logical step for a Rangers team that went 37-28-5 last season. They were one of the hottest teams in the league after January, were within two points of a playoff spot when the NHL halted play in mid-March because of the coronavirus, and they were included in the 24-team field that went to the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles for the league’s restart in August.

The team seemed to grow in the second half of the season, and the introduction of goaltender Igor Shesterkin to the lineup had a lot to do with that. The team was 19-18-4 when he was called up from AHL Hartford on Jan. 6. They went 18-10-1 after that, with Shesterkin going 10-2, with a 2.52 goals-against average, and a .932 save percentage. Shesterkin’s performance allowed the Rangers to move on from franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist, and the final year of Lundqvist’s contract was bought out so the Rangers could move forward with Shesterkin, 25, and Alexandar Georgiev, 24, as their goaltenders for this season.

The addition of forward Artemi Panarin, who led the team and was tied for third in the league in scoring, with 95 points, and the continuing emergence of Mika Zibanejad, who had a team-high (and career-best) 41 goals in 57 games gives the team firepower to make them legitimate threats to beat anyone on any night. And the fact that those two play on different lines puts pressure on opposing teams’ defenses, too.

But making the playoffs in this COVID-19-altered season will be more difficult than it would be in a normal season. First, the season will be 56 games over 116 days, which works out to just about a game every other day, with no All-Star break, no bye week, no time for resting the normal bumps and bruises that come with the game, and no time for practice, either, when some on-ice problem needs to be fixed.

And second, there is the matter of the Rangers being in what is easily the toughest division in the league’s just-for-this-season realignment. The eight-team Eastern division features Boston, Buffalo, Rangers, Islanders and Devils, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington. The teams will play their entire schedule within the division – meaning eight games apiece against each opponent – with the top four teams at the end making the playoffs. Considering the fact six of the eight teams made it to the restart last summer, making the playoffs will be a difficult task.

And yet, that is the task, and the Rangers are ready to attack it. In his remarks before training camp opened, team president John Davidson called making the playoffs "a goal, for sure.’’

"We have to have goals set in place,’’ Davidson said. "We have a very hungry team, we have a very hungry coaching staff, and there’s no question that (making the playoffs is) a goal.’’

Forward Chris Kreider, one of four alternate captains named by Quinn Wednesday, and the longest-tenured Ranger, was careful Wednesday in addressing talk of the playoffs. He wasn’t quite willing to sign on to Quinn’s saying that making the playoffs should be the expectation.

"I think it’s our goal, as opposed to our expectation,’’ Kreider said. "We’re not entitled to anything, or given anything in this league. You have to earn it every single night.’’

To do that, the Rangers, will need contributions from everybody. Shesterkin, the preseason favorite to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, will need to live up to the hype; Panarin and Zibanejad will need to replicate what they did last season; Ryan Strome will need to continue to make beautiful music with Panarin; the defense will need to solidify, and the kids – 19-year-old Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, 20-year-old K’Andre Miller, and 21-year-old Filip Chytil – are going to need to play older than their ages.

Season prediction

“Two men enter, one man leaves,” is what the guy said in the movie “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.’’ In the Eastern Division of the NHL this season, it’s, eight teams enter, four teams leave. Six of the eight teams in the East made it to the NHL’s 24-team restart in August, making this the league’s toughest division. But the young Rangers (24.9 average age), are going in the right direction. Some of the other teams are older, and 56 games in 116 days is going to be challenging. Expect to see the baby Blueshirts as one of the four teams standing in the East when it’s all said and done.

Projected record: 32-21-3

New York Sports