The Magic Number for clinching a playoff berth has been sliced to two points, they hold a six-point edge for home-ice advantage in Round 1, and do you know what?
That with 10 games to go in the regular season, the Rangers just might be as good as their 46-20-6 record says they are. Might be as good as their record has said they’ve been pretty much all season. And that three-weeks plus away from the tournament, the Blueshirts are a legitimate threat to get out of the East.
This was an impressive one, Thursday’s 3-0 victory over the Penguins at the Garden that extended the Blueshirts’ lead to six points over the Pittsburgh team that is lurking as the likely opening-round opponent. The chippy way this one ended with enmity and an exchange of angry words spilling past the final buzzer could have been a setup for Game 1.
The Rangers will take this game every game once the tournament commences. The Penguins were playing without Sidney Crosby, unavailable with a non-COVID illness, but the result was tallied without an asterisk. The Blueshirts suppressed their opponents as they did for much of the four-game season series they took 3-1, winning the last three over the last 13 days by an aggregate score of 11-3.
And when they did break down, which was not at all often, Igor Shesterkin responded with a pristine effort in recording a 30-shot shutout. If the netminder was not necessarily called upon to be brilliant — there was a point-blank dandy stop on Jake Guentzel with just under three minutes to play in the second and the Blueshirts up by two — the fact that he didn’t allow a marginal one was noteworthy enough.
“Obviously the last few games didn’t go as planned,” said Shesterkin, who’d allowed more questionable goals over the past few weeks than he did over the first few months. “I was really trying to get my grasp on the game. But we’ll keep moving forward from here.”
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As the playoffs approach, the Rangers have focused on playoff-style hockey. The 30 shots they allowed on Tuesday marked the most they have yielded over the past eight contests in which opponents have gotten an average of 23 shots per. The nine games prior to that, the Blueshirts had permitted an average of 33 per — 10 more a game.
If Shesterkin returned to form in this one, so did Adam Fox and his partner Ryan Lindgren. That nominal first pair has wobbled for a stretch. Since returning to play following the extended All-Star break, that pair had been on for 18 goals against at five-on-five while the K’Andre Miller-Jacob Trouba tandem had been on for 13.
Fox, in particular, seemed to be making the kinds of mental errors at both ends of the ice that the reigning Norris Trophy winner just never has made … until the last couple of months. Indeed, the Miller-Trouba pairing is now sharing time as the shutdown tandem.
But Fox was resolute in this one. So was Lindgren, with his pair essentially splitting time with Miller-Trouba in the matchup against the Guentzel-Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust unit. The Rangers came out ahead on the matchup that primarily had the Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Frank Vatrano unit working up front.
Vatrano got one off a backhand in front 24 seconds into the second period to open the scoring. Artemi Panarin, whose game the past week has caught up with escalating point totals, whipped a backhand past Tristan Jarry at 9:47 of the period for a 2-0 lead the Blueshirts maintained until Dryden Hunt sealed it with an empty-netter.
This was more entertaining than Tuesday’s 3-1 victory in New Jersey, but only by degrees. The Rangers seem quite content to stifle opponents rather than run-and-gun from the moment the puck is dropped. The Blueshirts might want to skill it up, but they’ve reared their game in a bit and have been more conservative and careful with the puck.
They’re playing the kind of style that is prone to be more beneficial in the playoffs. They are playing the kind of hockey that makes it possible to dream what should be an impossible dream.