The Rangers have won 10 of 13 since their 10-day layoff and now the postseason is a very real option for them. The Rangers needed to play .750 hockey after the break through the end of the season and so far they have done more than that to get within four points of a postseason berth. There’s 20 games left in the season and each one of them is essentially a playoff game, something this Rangers team hasn’t known in three years.
Here are 10 thoughts on the Rangers as usual.
1. The Rangers decided not to conduct a third straight selloff and instead extended Chris Kreider for seven years and traded away Brady Skjei and his contract for a first-round pick. Out of all the possibilities the Rangers had to handle the trade deadline, I certainly didn’t see this result and combination coming. The Rangers had the No. 1 asset on the market in Kreider and many other coveted assets like Skjei and Jacob Trouba and Pavel Buchnevich and Jesper Fast and Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Strome and Alexandar Georgiev and anyone other than Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Kaapko Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin (and Henrik Lundqvist because of his no-trade clause). That they chose to not sell and only move Skjei in order to free up cap space for their impending cap crunch this summer tells you this front office wants to keep as much of this group together and also wants to make the postseason this season. In a year that was never supposed to be about wins or losses or the playoffs, the Rangers have expedited a lengthy rebuild and in two years are a bubble team that has everyone in hockey talking about their future. So far the rebuild has gone better than anyone could have expected, and that’s mainly because of Panarin’s decision to take less money to be a Ranger and the future attached to landing the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft. A postseason berth in this season, which has been as fun to watch as any from 2011-2015, would be the cherry on top.
2. The Rangers are in a potential postseason position because of what they have done since their 10-day layoff, going 10-3. The point the Islanders were able to gain from them in the final seconds on Tuesday night hurt because it cut their deficit to the Islanders for one of the two wild-card spots by only one point rather than two. As it stands on Thursday morning, the Rangers are four points out of the second wild-card spot currently held by Columbus (though the Rangers have three games in hand), they’re five points out of the first wild-card spot currently held by the Islanders and seven points out of the third Met spot currently held by the Philadelphia. The Rangers needed to play .750 hockey coming out of their break to even be in this position with 20 games left in the schedule and they have done better than that, playing .769 hockey. The hard part is going to be to sustain this level of success for the next five-plus weeks and sustaining it against about as challenging of a schedule as you could have. The Rangers still have to play Philadelphia (3), St. Louis, Washington (2), Dallas, Colorado, Arizona, Calgary, Pittsburgh (3), Columbus, Tampa Bay and Florida. Their games against non-playoff teams aren’t exactly a walk in the park either against Montreal, New Jersey, Buffalo and Chicago. The Rangers are going to have to find a way to continue to win three of every four against some of the league’s best and the games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (because they’re 30 percent of their remaining schedule) will most likely decide their fate.
3. The Rangers even being in this position is a major accomplishment. Cap Friendly recently released a list of the league in order from youngest roster to oldest and the Rangers came in at No. 1 with the youngest roster. (Washington has the oldest roster.) The Rangers are filled with young, exciting talent and they’re getting exposure to playoff-like atmospheres and experience playing in a must-win setting each game. Even if this run to a playoff berth ends with the Rangers on the outside looking in for the third straight season, it will have a much different feel to it and it will go a long way in meaning something next season and the seasons to come.
4. A huge reason the Rangers are in this spot is because of their play within the Met. They finished the season 4-0 against Carolina and 3-1 against the Islanders, and they’re 2-1 against Columbus, 2-1 against New Jersey, 1-1 against Washington and 1-0 against Pittsburgh. (They’re 0-1 against Philadelphia with three games left against them). The Rangers play in the hardest and deepest division in the league and they have gone 13-5 so far. That’s promising because many of these teams aren’t going anywhere as the Rangers grow and get closer to their own championship window, but it’s their play outside the Met that will need to improve beginning next season to avoid being in this type of situation a year from now.
5. The Rangers dominance over the Islanders this season was more than enjoyable. The Islanders have been battling the last few weeks to avoid enduring a monumental collapse from being a postseason sure-thing two months ago to being outside the postseason picture completely. The Rangers have had a lot to do with that after taking three of four from their rival. The Islanders are very much in a win-now window (even if it’s obvious their roster’s ceiling is the second round) and the Rangers handled them. The Islanders are nowhere near good enough to win the Cup with their current team as demonstrated by their inability to consistently score. Barry Trotz’s game plan has been to score three goals and play shutdown defense and those three goals will be good enough to win on most nights. The problem is the Islanders have trouble scoring one goal let alone two or three on most nights. The job the Rangers did in being able to beat that veteran defense and style of play three times is impressive and speaks to the offensive talent on this Rangers team. If the Rangers could add in just a little of Trotz’s defensive style they will be a force and one of the league’s elite teams very soon.
6. Each time the Rangers and Islanders play, I can’t help but think about what would have been had Panarin taken the most money and become an Islander. Panarin scored the Rangers’ first goal on Tuesday night and created the play that led to Mika Zibanejad’s game-winning goal in overtime (and what a fucking blast that was from Zibanejad). The only game Panarin has missed this season was the Rangers’ third game against the Islanders and the Rangers lost that game. In the other three — all Rangers wins — Panarin had three goals and five assists. Thankfully, those eight points came for the Rangers against the Islanders and not the other way around like it could have been.
7. After watching Jacob Trouba’s hit on Michael Dal Colle from both the Rangers’ broadcast and the Islanders’ broadcast, it’s amazing that the two could have such varying opinions on the play. If you listen to each without watching, you would think they were describing two completely different hits. The hit was clean and I don’t believe that because I’m a Rangers fan. I believe that because I’m a hockey fan. You can’t be giving buddy passes in the NHL, and you certainly can’t be receiving those passes in your feet and not cleanly. Jean-Gabriel Pageau — in his Islanders debut — can’t be making passes like that to a teammate to exit the defensive zone. If I was Dal Colle, I wouldn’t be mad at Trouba for stepping up and laying his his shoulder into my shoulder (which he did), I would be mad at Pageau for giving me that pass. Pageau then jumped Trouba for making a clean and successful hit and was rightfully given a 2, a 5 and a 10 for his actions. Players shouldn’t have to answer the bell for clean hits, but really players shouldn’t be giving other players passes which could get them severely injured.
8. How about Brendan Smith? After being moved back to D following the trade of Skjei, he looked like the player the Rangers gave a four-year deal to after coming over from Detroit three years ago. It was easily the best game Smith has played since that first year as a Ranger, and he added a goal on top of his outstanding defensive work. For the tumultuous ride it’s been for Smith between getting the four-year deal then getting sent to the AHL then having to become a fourth-line forward, to finally returning to where he belongs and playing like he belongs, I think every Rangers fan is happy to see him contributing with more than a fight or an unnecessary minor penalty. If he can maintain the level of play he displayed at the Coliseum on Tuesday, some team will take the final year of his contract this summer with so many top-end defensive prospects ready to be Rangers.
9. The news about Buchnevich and Shesterkin was both scary and unfortunate. Thankfully, both are generally OK and avoided serious injury. Buchnevich didn’t play against the Islanders, but he was practicing the next day, so I assume he’ll be back this week. As for Shesterkin, it’s a crushing blow to both he and the Rangers as he continued to play at a level Lundqvist used to play at each and every game and Shesterkin and the Rangers continued to rack up wins because of his play. I don’t know that Shesterkin will be back this season, but if he’s not, the Rangers clearly have the heir to Lundqvist, and no matter what happens in the offseason, Shesterkin is clearly the No. 1 now and moving forward.
10. Georgiev did a remarkable job to beat the Islanders for a third time this season and it was announced on Wednesday that he will start the Rangers’ next game on Thursday in Montreal. I would have to think that means Lundqvist will play on Friday against Philadelphia. If not, then I have no idea what the Rangers are doing or thinking. I thought Lundqvist should have been in net against the Islanders, but I’m sure Georgiev was because of his success against them this season. If Lundqvist plays on Friday, he will once again draw the hardest competition of the three, and if he doesn’t play well, every idiot will question why Georgiev wasn’t playing. The Flyers are a contender right now. The Rangers, despite their recent 13-game run, aren’t. That can’t be forgotten when the Rangers play the hottest team in the league other than them on Friday. Lundqvist will be starting for the first time in 25 days and his most recent starts will have come against Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis, Calgary, Carolina and Philadelphia. It would be hard enough for Lundqvist to shut down the Flyers’ offense and for the Rangers to beat Flyers on the road if this were five years ago and he was playing nearly every game. Given what his situation is now and how this Rangers team stacks up against the Flyers, expectations should be tempered. But given the way the majority of Rangers fans have acted toward Lundqvist this season, I’m sure they won’t be.