Rangers’ Physical Makeover to Be Tested on Western Road Trip

The New York Rangers toughened up before this season, adding strength and size to their roster with an eye on returning to the playoffs – and being able to succeed once there.

With a 35-15-5 record, good for third place in the Metropolitan Division, the Blueshirts look to be on their way to accomplishing the first part of that goal. The next seven days should serve as solid trial run as to whether they can reach the second one.

Starting Sunday night, the Rangers embark on four-game road trip against the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars – a quartet of big, physical teams that pressure the puck, pound away at their opponent and attack the net in a formula that has three of them in playoff position in the Western Conference.

Gerard Gallant, New York Rangers
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

This jaunt through the big, brawny West should at least approximate a playoff series, with the Blueshirts set to play an extended stretch of tough, grinding games in which they’ll have to battle in the trenches, take some hits and give some back. Perhaps most critically, they’ll have to defend the crease around the red-hot Igor Shesterkin, far and away the biggest reason for their success in 2021-22. They might also get a clear sense of just how acute the need for reinforcements to the forward corps is, timely with the trip occurring not long before the March 21 trade deadline.

“It’s important,” former Jet Jacob Trouba said of the team’s final four-game road swing of the season. “Obviously we want to have a good road trip. It’ll be nice to spend some time on the road, be around each other, be with each other, go out to some dinners. To spend some good time together, I think that’s something — we’ve been kind of local for the most part, I guess, playing games. So it’ll be nice to get on a road trip and spend some time together.” (From ‘Rangers Gear Up For Last Extended Road Trip This Season’, New York Post, 3/5/22)

The Rangers have tested themselves this season against opponents like their next four, coming out on top in some of those contests, looking overmatched in others. This stretch will be their biggest challenge as to whether they can sustain success in these kinds of games for an extended period – which will be necessary in a postseason series against a similar Eastern Conference opponent.

Rangers Need to Ramp Up Play With Four Big Opponents Looming

Friday’s 3-1 home victory over the New Jersey Devils was the Blueshirts’ second straight after back-to-back losses – but coach Gerard Gallant knows his team will have to improve significantly if it wants to earn similar results on this daunting trip.

“I just thought we could’ve been better in a lot of areas,” Gallant said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. (The Devils) created stuff, their power play looked really good, their young kids are moving the puck good. I just think we look flat at times and then we look good at times. 

“I hate to critique a win, but I know we can better than that. And Shesky was outstanding.” (From ‘Rangers Stifle Devils’ High-Powered Offense in Another Low-Scoring Win’, New York Post, 3/4/22)

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That, of course, would be Shesterkin, who was brilliant again in stopping 32 shots as he once more allowed his team to overcome an opponent that carried the play against them. At some point, having the Vezina Trophy frontrunner and potential Hart Trophy candidate on the Rangers’ side isn’t going to be enough – like this upcoming week, for instance.

First up are the Jets, who look to be on their way to missing the playoffs for the first time in five years (counting their appearance in the NHL’s qualifying round in 2020). Winnipeg has dropped five of seven, losing 4-3 in overtime at home to the Stars on Friday.

Related: Rangers’ Left Defense Not Cemented But Steadily Improving

The Jets, though, are big, tough and skilled, possessing power forwards such as Mark Scheifele, Pierre Luc-Dubois, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Copp that are the envy of plenty of teams throughout the NHL. Beating them will require the Rangers to prevent those players from establishing their cycle game below the circles in the offensive zone, and for defensemen Trouba, K’Andre Miller, Ryan Lindgren, Patrik Nemeth and Braden Schneider to clear those big bodies away from Shesterkin.

Things won’t get any easier Tuesday in St. Paul, where the Rangers face the 32-18-3 Wild for the second time this season. Like Winnipeg, Minnesota is struggling, having dropped seven of nine while giving up 36 goals in the defeats.

Jacob Trouba New York Rangers
Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba will face his former team in Winnipeg (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yet the Wild came into Madison Square Garden and won 3-2 on Jan. 28 in a hard-fought affair in which they were in the Rangers’ faces all night, a game that bore all the hallmarks of a pound-it-out playoff game. Gallant’s team will be contending with more big guys up front like Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and the hulking Jordan Greenway (6-foot-6, 227 pounds). Minnesota is a tough, nasty team that can match up physically with anyone.

Quick Rematch With Blues Should Be Another Battle

The Rangers can perhaps draw some encouragement for Thursday’s matchup with the Blues, whom they defeated 5-3 at home last Wednesday after trailing 3-2 going into the third period. That game, though, proved to be a microcosm of the Rangers’ season – one in which they played encouragingly for extended stretches and found a way to win, but also suffered from egregious defensive lapses and left Shesterkin on his own far too much.

In that contest, St. Louis erased a 2-0 deficit with goals on three consecutive shots in a 2:14 span late in the second. The Blueshirts, though, got goals from Nemeth, Kreider and an empty-netter from Panarin as they dominated the final 20 minutes.

Chris Kreider New York Rangers
Rangers winger Chris Kreider (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Blues’ huge defense corps, led by Justin Faulk, Robert Bortuzzo and Colton Parayko, will again present the Rangers with a challenge as they look to establish their down-low game – something they’ve had trouble maintaining throughout the season.

Last up is Dallas, another burly club that will have had three days off before taking on a Rangers club that’s bound to be tired – and perhaps a little beat-up by that point – as it closes out its trip Saturday. The Stars, who fell 2-1 to the New York Islanders on Saturday for their second straight loss on their NYC-area trip, are battling for a wild-card spot.

That means another night of trying to move a group of large, net-crashing forwards out of the way for the Blueshirts. Perhaps Gallant’s group will have trouble doing that for a fourth consecutive time. But it’s exactly what the Rangers will have to do should they face the Carolina Hurricanes or the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the postseason, if they make it there for the first time in four years. The NHL playoffs are a different animal, and these four games should provide the Blueshirts with a stark example of that.

Braden Schneider New York Rangers
Rangers rookie defenseman Braden Schneider (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“We’re a good team,” Nemeth, the first-year Ranger, said. “When I’m watching our games, I think we’re a really good team, especially when we’re playing the way we’re supposed to play, and when we do that for 60 minutes I think it’s hard to play against us.”

The Rangers got bigger and stronger and edgier in the offseason in order to become just that type of outfit. They added Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt, now-injured Sammy Blais and Ryan Reaves up front, and Nemeth was brought in to add muscle to the backline. Schneider’s promotion from the American Hockey League in January gave the Blueshirts another big defender. The club’s style has consequently changed, to one that’s ostensibly better-suited to the playoff grind.

Has it changed enough? The next week should go a long way toward answering that question.