There was a real possibility the Rangers could’ve entered this holiday break with their season hanging in the balance given how their season started. Instead, the Blueshirts were able to step away from the ice feeling like they deserved the four-day layoff after clawing their way back into the playoff conversation with eight wins in their last 10 games leading up to it.
The pride that permeated from the locker room after their 5-3 win over the Islanders last week was tangible. As a team, they had discussed finishing the final stretch before the break strong — and they did. It may just be the turning point in the season the Rangers will look back on.
“I think we’re just confident,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “I think we feel good about our team. We feel good about our game, for the most part. Every time we [track] scoring chances, we’re usually ahead of the other team in those games. I think we’ve played really well the last nine or 10 games, whatever it is. Competing and playing well. And we’re getting some puck luck, even though we’re still hitting goal posts. We’re getting some puck luck and we didn’t have that for most of the first 20-25 games of the season. I hate saying that, but that’s what I truly believe.
“Our record should have been better than when it was the first 25, and it wasn’t. We found a way to dig down. When you work hard and compete, good things usually happen and that’s what happened the last 10 games.”
There have already been so many highs and lows through just 35 games, but it’s made for a wild ride. In the spirit of the 12 Days of Christmas, here’s a dozen superlatives that capture the Rangers season so far:
The sheer athleticism and elite skill that was required on K’Andre Miller’s knees-to-skates breakaway goal in Philadelphia on Dec. 17 was outrageous. This was not just the Rangers’ best goal of the season, it very well could be the NHL’s best goal of the season.
Out of the penalty box, Miller chipped the puck off the boards and out of the defensive zone to jump out past the Flyers’ Travis Sanheim. Miller zeroed in on goalie Carter Hart before he was blatantly tripped by Sanheim, which caused the Rangers defensemen to fall to his knees. As the referee’s hand shot up to signal that a penalty shot was in store, Miller had already propped his skates back underneath him, all while keeping the puck on his stick. He finished the breakaway without missing a single stride to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead, which eventually turned into a 6-3 win.
“That one’s in the bag for sure,” Miller said afterward.
With a goalie like Igor Shesterkin, there are too many saves that fit this category. As great as his Oct. 25 sprawling save on Mikko Rantanen’s breakaway in the first meeting with the Avalanche was, the pokecheck Shesterkin made on Jack Hughes’ penalty shot when the Rangers were trailing 3-1 to the Devils on Dec. 12 mattered more. The Rangers went on to win 4-3 in overtime.
Mika Zibanejad’s ridiculously long pass off the boards that bounced right to Chris Kreider for the game-winner over the Kings on Nov. 22 was marvelous. What was even better was that it was a set play the two longest-tenured Rangers have practiced.
“I think we’ve done it so many times in the past, it’s not always there, but just happened to be there and he made an unbelievable play,” Kreider said at the time. “I just kind of take off, he sees it. Been playing long enough, I know that he’s going to make that play.”
In such an up-and-down season, there’s been just as many gloomy quotes as positive ones. Shesterkin’s “the goalie played a s–t game again, I’m ashamed” proclamation was an unforgettable one. As was Artemi Panarin asking reporters if they had a YouTube account to watch the move he pulled on former teammate Alexandar Georgiev in the shootout win over the Avalanche.
But it was Jacob Trouba’s all-encompassing quote about the state of the Rangers at the lowest point of the season that stands out.
“We’re going through it,” the Rangers captain said. “There’s a lot of the story left to be written. It’s not a done thing by any means, but it’s going on for a bit now and something needs to change. There needs to be a little more of a pushback from ourselves within.”
The 5-3 win over Islanders just before break, because of what it stood for and who it was against.
The 4-3 loss to the Oilers on Nov. 26. After leading Edmonton 3-0 through the first 40 minutes, the Rangers gave up four goals in the third period.
The Rangers may not have started truly playing better hockey until later on in the win streak this month, but Trouba’s string of fights and the throwing of his helmet/screaming at the bench in the first meeting with the Blackhawks on Dec. 3 certainly awakened something in the Rangers.
Who would’ve guessed that Jimmy Vesey would be playing some of the best hockey of his career in his second stint with the Rangers? In addition to six goals and six assists, Vesey has simply been a reliable and consistent contributor night in and night out.
The 11-10-5 start.
Coaching decision that worked
The most recent was moving Vincent Trocheck away from Panarin and forging the Kreider-Trocheck-Vesey line in the last eight games.
Coaching decision that flopped
Zac Jones had one stretch of six straight games this season. Every other run was only two to three games. No young player is going to be able to get into a groove under such circumstances. Now, Jones is in Hartford and Ben Harpur is currently the Rangers’ sixth defenseman — and the organization still doesn’t know what it has in Jones.
The curious case of Vitali Kravtsov continues. Will he get taken off the fourth line and given another top-six look? Will Gallant make him the 13th forward again? Will Kravtsov prove he can be a full-time contributing NHLer?
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