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Rangers' wild-card chase conundrum: All-in or fold their hand?

Chris Kreider of the Rangers celebrates his goal

Chris Kreider of the Rangers celebrates his goal late in the third period against the Islanders at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Thursday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

If the Rangers’ season were a two-part television episode, then they entered the NHL All-Star break/bye week on a cliffhanger.

The Rangers’ stated goal is to make the playoffs. They believe that’s not some pie-in-the-sky vision but one they actually can achieve. But at the All-Star break, they are 11 points out of the second wild-card spot and currently on a two-game losing streak (both in regulation).

Artemi Panarin, their leading scorer and most dynamic player, sat out the last game and will miss the All-Star Game with an upper-body injury. Coach David Quinn said the Rangers don’t think Panarin’s injury will be a long-term thing, but what if it is?

If Panarin, who has 26 goals and 42 assists, isn’t healed after the nine days the Rangers have off between games, then they can forget about the playoffs. But even if the 28-year-old winger is back to 100% when the Rangers return to action against the Detroit Red Wings next Friday, the idea of the Blueshirts making the playoffs remains a long shot — and it’s getting longer by the day.

Coming up on two years since their letter to the fans announced they were heading into a rebuilding phase, Rangers management — team president John Davidson, general manager Jeff Gorton and the rest of their front-office team — has a month before the Feb. 24 trade deadline to decide if the team is in or out of the race.

If they believe they’re still in, they could hold on to some of their most attractive assets, perhaps even keeping left wing Chris Kreider — who replaced Panarin as the Rangers’ All-Star Game representative — for the rest of the season and letting him leave as an unrestricted free agent this summer. If they decide they are out, they likely will sell off assets at the deadline for the third straight year.

So which will it be?

The Rangers have two games in hand on the Hurricanes, meaning if they win both of those, they will cut the gap to seven points. The problem with having games in hand, though, is that you have to play that many more games over the remainder of the season than your competition does.

When the Rangers return to action, they will do so with a back-to-back against the Red Wings (home Friday, away Saturday). They will have 15 games in February, 15 in March and three in the first four days of April. That’s 34 games in the season’s final 65 days (including five sets of back-to-backs). That’s a lot.

If this were a two-part television drama, the second part would feature the Rangers escaping from the cliff and, through some combination of heroic performances by the actors and a little bit of luck, ultimately achieving the goal and delivering a happy ending.

There are plenty of obstacles in the way, though, beginning with the three-goalie situation the Blueshirts were in when we saw them last.

They called up Igor Shesterkin from AHL Hartford on Jan. 6, and though they sent him back to Hartford after Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders, it’s almost a certainty that they’ll call him up again next week. And why not? He’s played well in his three appearances, going 2-1-0 with a 2.68 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

But franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist is not going anywhere (unless he agrees to waive his no-move clause to be traded to a Stanley Cup contender, which seems highly unlikely).

Alexandar Georgiev has played well enough (12-10-1, 3.11 GAA, .910 save percentage) that the Rangers won’t trade him away just to relieve the awkwardness of the three-goalie situation.

Word is they want a surefire top-nine forward, and not just a draft pick or minor-league prospect. If they don’t get that, then Georgiev is staying, and they’ll deal with the problem in the summer.

Stay tuned.

New York Sports