A 5-2 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 3 was rock-bottom for the New York Rangers. They were out of a playoff spot, struggling to score and defend, and many, including myself, thought coach Gerard Gallant was on the hot seat. Fast forward two weeks and the Rangers have won seven straight games, including a victory Sunday night over those same Blackhawks, 7-1.
The Blueshirts have catapulted to third in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 18-10-5, good for 41 points through 33 games. They haven’t looked as sharp as we’d hope at times, but they are following in the footsteps of the 2021-22 Rangers by capitalizing on high-danger chances and finding ways to win games.
Igor Shesterkin has regained his form, rattling off six wins in his last seven starts (6-0-1), with a superb 1.95 Goals Against Average (GAA) and a .935 Save Percentage (SV%), per Natural Stat Trick. He has played like the reigning Vezina winner again, allowing the Rangers to take more chances and increase their offensive output. Shesterkin seems to thrive when consistently facing pressure, and the Rangers have found a style that works for all parties involved.
Over these last seven games, the Rangers have toppled the Vegas Golden Knights, who sit atop the West, the New Jersey Devils, who sit atop the Metro, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have the fifth-best point percentage in the NHL. They have beaten both good and bad teams, but now the toughest and most crucial tests face them.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders lay ahead on the schedule. Four massive points are up for grabs in the Metropolitan Division, as the Rangers have the opportunity to put some separation between them and the two teams in the thick of the race with them. Beating those two teams is challenging enough, but they may have to do so without Filip Chytil, who left the 7-1 win Sunday with an upper-body injury and is listed as day-to-day.
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It’s hard to beat those two teams at full strength, let alone missing one of the team’s hottest forwards, but that is the challenge that awaits the Rangers as they aim to push their win streak to nine games in a row.
Rangers & Penguins Clash for 1st Time since Playoffs
The Rangers will be in Pittsburgh on Dec. 20 to play the Penguins for the first time since they ousted them from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. It took seven games and an overtime winner from Artemi Panarin for the Rangers to erase a 3-1 series deficit in what was a rollercoaster of a series, both physically and emotionally.
Both teams come into the matchup red-hot. The Rangers are on their long win streak, and the Penguins just lost to the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday, ending their own seven-game win streak. Indeed there is still bad blood between the two teams from what transpired last May, and you can be sure Captain Jacob Trouba will be hearing it from the Pittsburgh crowd all night.
Gallant’s team won the season series against Pittsburgh 3-1-0 last season, but that means little to nothing when considering what has transpired since then. It is a new season, with both teams struggling early and finding their groove of late for what will be a hard-fought game.
The Rangers need to clean up their game if they hope to push their streak to eight in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. They have been sloppy with the puck at times, and against a team like the Penguins, who have so many great players, you have to be more cautious with your puck handling.
Related: Rangers’ Kreider Quietly Having Another Big Season
PPG Paints Arena saw the Penguins beat the Rangers by scores of 7-2 and 7-4 in the postseason last year, as the Rangers hope to avoid that same fate and continue their winning ways. But awaiting them after the highly anticipated matchup against Pittsburgh are the New York Islanders.
Rangers Look To Salvage Season Series with Islanders
The Islanders have won both meetings against the Rangers this season, outscoring the Blueshirts 7-3. The Rangers lost a multi-goal lead in the second meeting, as they seemed to have the game won before surrendering three late goals in the third period. It’s been a trend that the Islanders play well against the Rangers, and thus far in 2022-23, that has not changed.
Four points separate the Rangers from the Islanders in the standings, with the Islanders holding a game in hand. These games aren’t just big because of the rivalry, but they also have serious standings implications. The season series against their biggest rivals is already lost for the Rangers, but a win Thursday night would allow them to avenge the first two losses and continue to put the Islanders in the rearview mirror in the playoff race.
Shesterkin, who has been otherworldly against everyone else, has managed just a 1-7-1 record against the Islanders in his career, with a subpar 3.15 GAA and .884 SV%. For the Rangers to defeat the Islanders for the first time this season, they will need Shesterkin to overcome the mental hurdle that is the Islanders and play up to the level he so often plays at.
The Islanders are nipping at the Rangers’ heels, and the Rangers need two points against their rival on Thursday.
Seven wins in a row are great, and this stretch has nearly erased all the bad from early in the season from our memories. But losing both games this week would be a huge setback for a team now playing with confidence for the first time since the season’s opening week.
There are vital standings points on the table against two division rivals. The Rangers must get points, and their long win streak will face the two hardest challenges yet as they faceoff with the Penguins and Islanders prior to the Christmas break.