On Thursday, Mar. 30, the New York Rangers played their last game of the season against the New Jersey Devils and lost by a score of 2-1. Although this loss hurt, the Rangers learned more about the team they will likely face in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and how much they need to raise their game to have a shot at advancing past the new look Devils and make a deep playoff run for the second year in a row.
Their quest will be about outdoing last year"s conference finals appearance by making the finals (Period). It"s a high bar to set but the one thing about winning in professional sports is, you need to push yourselves to always be better and never be satisfied with the status quo. Right now, the Rangers have been playing a bit inconsistently; last week they split back-to-back games against the division leading Hurricanes, where they played well and rattled off two more victories after that. This week began with a strong win over Columbus but soured towards the end of it because of two straight losses.
After their most recent loss against the Buffalo Sabres, head coach Gerard Gallant criticized the way his team played against a non-playoff team en route to losing their second straight game.
We clinched a week ago and it seems like we clinched and [we feel like] the season’s over. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to play hard every night and do the best you can, and I don’t like the way we played tonight.
Head Coach of the Rangers, Gerard Gallant
Currently, the Rangers have already clinched a playoff berth as they sit in third place in their division, 12 points ahead of the New York Islanders who look like they will finish fourth. But that does not mean much to coach Gallant and his veterans because their goal is to win the cup. One positive for them lately has been their play over the last month, which includes taking points from 11 of their last 13 games. The Rangers went on a four-game winning streak from Mar. 14-19 and shutout the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-0, but now that the stage has been set for the nearing Stanley Cup playoffs, every team is focused on playing their best, and the Rangers need to start doing that soon.
Why can"t the Rangers Offense Dominate Games?
March was the last full month of the 2022-23 regular season, and it went very well for Gerard Gallant"s team. The Blueshirts went 10-4-2 during March and that"s a dominant display by all accounts. During the last two weeks, the credit for this recent play goes to their offense which has exploded for 32 goals in eight game stretch from March 14 -28, where they won seven times. The Rangers offense had its way with less strong teams like the Penguins and Capitals but they didn"t against the first place Carolina Hurricanes and second place Devils during this stretch and finding ways to score against those teams is an obstacle they have to overcome with the playoffs coming up.
Picking up Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko has helped them immensely, as Tarasenko especially stepped up in March with six points during this stretch on top of a sound defensive game from a top-six role. However, it can"t just come down to the top-six forwards, the bottom-six need to contribute, as well. And for the Rangers, the spotlight shines on to their third line, or ‘the kid line" which has two first-round picks, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, on it. Both have contributed decent point totals to the team this year and moreso been a part of a line that has been their most consistent in recent weeks, led by Filip Chytil who has six points in his last five games.
The fact is though, that maybe Ranger fans should trust in their team"s ability to succeed a bit more and stop whining. Winning games in the playoffs is as much about scoring as it is defense and if your blueline plays well and your goalie does too, you can steal games. The Rangers have Igor Shesterkin in net, who has looked more like the guy who won the Vezina last year. Over his last five games, Shesterkin has given up eight goals on 163 shots against him, which equates to a .950 save percentage. He"s playing well and the problem doesn"t begin with him. It begins with the Rangers" forward lines not playing as hard as they possibly can every night.
How the Rangers can Find their Game
There are six games left in the season for Gallant"s crew and that is not much time. Most Ranger fans are misguided when they say the team is going to get bounced in the first round against whoever wins the Metropolitan Division. Right now, those teams will be either the Devils or Carolina Hurricanes and the Rangers have played well against both throughout the 2022-23 NHL season. They have gone 3-1-0 against Carolina this season and 1-2-1 (one overtime loss) against New Jersey. Neither record is amazing or terrible, but both records reflect the honest truth. It"s going to be hard for Gallant"s team to dominate either the Devils or Canes because they are both better than the Rangers right now– but not by much.
So, how can the Blueshirts start dominating again? Well, during their last two games, the Rangers have been seriously outplayed in the first period. They went down 2-0 on the road against the Devils and that"s a tough hole to climb out of against a really good team. The Rangers have 99 points and are going to finish the year with over 100 points. That means they are an elite team who can dominate, if they start games the right way. The good news is they have done this lately. They did it when they beat up the Penguins, who should make the playoffs, 6-0 on Mar. 18 and they did it ten days later when they beat Columbus by a score of 6-2.
The way forward for the Rangers is to do as their coach asks them to; ‘play hard every night and do the best you can." My first assignment as a college sportswriter was covering the Montclair State women"s soccer team and the head coach of the team described his philosophy, which had led to success, as “to be humble, and there"s never any excuse to get outworked." The great thing about this quote is, it probably has been said millions of times by people from all walks of life and not just sports, but it"s always going to be sound advice.
Rangers captain, Jacob Trouba obviously agrees or else he would not be the captain of the New York Rangers. The captain often is in his position because he understands his teammates better than the coach does and Trouba offered his thoughts on the state of the Rangers locker room, now with two weeks left in the season.
We’d rather be in this position than some other ones. We were in a similar spot last year. You got to keep building be ready to play its not hockey is not something you turn on and off. You got to build and know how you’re going to come out and play everyday.
Rangers defenseman and Captain, Jacob Trouba
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images