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If Rangers are for real, last few games certainly proved it

Rangers
Jan 3, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers celebrate their 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers after the game at Madison Square Garden.
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers weren’t just an afterthought in the NHL heading into the 2021-22 season, they were expected to play second-billing in their own area behind the two-time Stanley Cup semifinalist Islanders.

After all, a team that finished 11 points back of a playoff spot last season completely cleaned house during the offseason — a suggestion that a rebuild promised in 2018 by former management would reset. 

But new general manager Chris Drury has pulled the right strings, beefed up the Rangers roster to complement its overwhelming ranks of finesse, and found the right hard-nosed experienced coach in Gerard Gallant to lead the way.

And so, they were off.

The Blueshirts started 17-4-3 on the heels of a seven-game win streak to post one of the best starts in franchise history. Offensive firepower was supported by an ever-improving defense — though not many will say it’s one of the best in the NHL — and the sterling goaltending of Igor Shesterkin.

Following a lower-body injury that sidelined the netminder, though, the Rangers sagged, losing five of seven behind with backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev getting most of the playing time — though not much fault could be placed on him considering he was more than serviceable in relief.

However, it provided the slightest of inklings that the Rangers’ formula of winning might not be so sustainable if they don’t have Vezina-Trophy-level goaltending night in and night out. 

Any thought of that should be thrown out the window after their last three games — and any doubters should begin to seriously reconsider these Rangers. 

New York has won three straight games following the extended holiday break featuring a home-and-home sweep of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning by a combined score of 8-3 before taking care of Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers 4-1 on Monday night at Madison Square Garden. 

They can certainly feel the good vibes.

“The last few nights have been just a really good team effort all around top to bottom, [defense], forwards, goalies,” forward Ryan Strome, who recorded a goal and two assists on Monday against his former team, said. “It’s been nice to see. I think maybe the [holiday] break did us well. The rink is buzzing. Guys are excited and happy. It’s a good feeling.”

An offense even without Artemi Panarin (COVID) is clicking on all cylinders having scored four goals in each of the last two games without him while Georgiev continues to prove that last season’s struggles were an anomaly more than anything.

The Bulgarian backup kept McDavid and the NHL’s top goal-scorer Leon Draisaitl at bay on Monday, turning away 33 of 34 shots. The regular playing time has done him plenty good, even with COVID and the nearly two-week break stimying some momentum.

He’s stopped 61 of his last 64 shots faced and since the beginning of December (eight games), he’s posted a .940 save percentage and a 1.79 goals-against average.

“I felt pretty good about my game the last few games and just tried to come back and do the same thing,” Georgiev said. “Luckily, I didn’t miss too much time with COVID, only a couple games. I was back pretty quick, got a couple of skates in that helped a lot.”

Couple that sort of play in the crease with Shesterkin, who is 15-4-2 this season with a .936 save percentage and a 2.09 goals-against average, and the Rangers are looking at the kind of elite goaltending rotation that fuels substantial playoff runs.

It’s already paying dividends. The Rangers have now won 22 of their first 34 games this season. That’s tied for the second-most wins in the NHL and tied for the most points in the league with the Washington Capitals (48). Those 48 points through 34 games are also tied for fifth-most in franchise history and most since in a decade.

The Rangers are seven games away from the numerical halfway point of the 2021-22 season. It’s probably time to start taking them for real if you haven’t done so already. 

 

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