Back-to-backs are never easy, but they are even more challenging when the two opponents are the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. In two hard-fought, playoff-style games, the New York Rangers skated away with two huge road wins.
Both weekend games were stark contrasts, but the results were the same. Wins in both Tampa and Raleigh now have the Rangers sitting just three points back of the Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. The performance of Igor Shesterkin this season has many believing the Rangers will be in over their heads come playoff time. But two wins this weekend, including a shutout by Alexandar Georgiev, may alter some perspectives.
The Eastern Conference is a warzone that may pose a field of eight teams, all of whom have at least 100-points. No matter the matchup, the Rangers will be in for a battle, which most of their players have yet to experience. Despite the lack of playoff experience by the bulk of the roster, the Rangers have developed into a team that seems poised to play postseason-style games.
They may not be the best possession team, but the Rangers capitalize on their chances and have a pest-like attribute that keeps them in games. With just 19 games to play (12 of which will be at home), the Rangers seem poised to make the playoffs and look a tough matchup for whomever they face.
Rangers Outlast Lightning on ABC
The Lightning doesn’t lose many games, but the Rangers have bested them three times this season. Sweeping the season series against the defending champs is no small feat, but these young and pesky Blueshirts have done that. A 2-1 win in Tampa on Saturday gave the Rangers a perfect 3-0-0 record against Tampa in 2021-22, proving that they can hang with the league’s elite.
Mika Zibanejad put the nail in the coffin with a power-play goal that found the net with 16-seconds remaining in regulation. The Rangers looked lost on the power play all game but managed to salvage the tough night (1-for-6) with a massive goal when they needed it most.
The Nationally televised game on ABC pitted the best goaltender in recent years, Andrei Vasilevskiy, against this season’s best in Shesterkin. For the second time this year, the battle was won by Shesterkin, who stopped 28 of 29 shots and had a goals saved above expected of 0.88 per Money Puck.
His counterpart stopped 25 of 27 shots and tallied 0.62 goals saved above expected. Both goalies were solid, and both teams created chaos around the net-front to beat the netminders. The Rangers didn’t win the possession metrics but created more chances and had a higher expected goals total than the Lightning (2.62 – 1.88).
It was a physical, close-checking game, and once the intensity ramped up in the second period, so did the play of the Rangers. There was a moment where Pat Maroon bumped Shesterkin and was challenged by Ryan Lindgren. That challenge sparked the Rangers, who carried the play after that, ultimately leading to the victory.
Escaping a Beatdown in Raleigh
A quick turnaround (less than 24-hours) for the Rangers pitted them the next night against the Hurricanes. Carolina is one of the best teams in the league and has given the Blueshirts fits each of the past two seasons. The stat sheet will indicate that this was yet another beatdown by the Hurricanes, but they ran into the brick wall that was Georgiev Sunday night (from ‘Rangers ride Alexandar Georgiev’s stellar night to statement win over Hurricanes,’ New York Post, 3/20/2022).
It was undoubtedly the best game of his career, turning aside all 44 shots he faced in the Rangers’ 40th win of the season. Per Money Puck, Carolina was expected to score 5.39 goals compared to the Rangers 2.5, yet the Rangers skated away with the 2-0 victory. The shots on goal were 44-18, as lopsided a total as they come.
Georgiev picked up his first shutout of the season, ending his streak of shaky starts in grand fashion. Chris Kreider scored his 41st goal on a beautiful deflection in the second period, followed by Frank Vatrano’s first as a Ranger into an empty net to seal the win.
By no means was it a pretty game for the Rangers, but they got it done. They will meet Carolina two more times this season, which will be at Madison Square Garden. Home ice and appropriate rest will be a better indicator of how they stack up against this Hurricanes squad which is the class of the Metro.
What These Wins Mean
The eight playoff teams in the East are seemingly set. After the weekend victories, this is how the Rangers stack up against them this year:
- vs. Boston Bruins: 2-0-0
- vs. Carolina Hurricanes: 1-1-0
- vs. Florida Panthers: 2-1-0
- vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: 0-1-0
- vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: 3-0-0
- vs. Toronto Maple Leafs: 2-1-0
- vs. Washington Capitals: 1-1-0
There are small sample sizes, but there is nothing here that suggests the Rangers cannot be competitive this postseason. The Rangers may not be the favorites to come out of this gauntlet, but they certainly have a chance. Starpower at all three positions and a team identity that revolves around finding ways to win have this team ahead of their rebuild curve.
Their style of play has matched up perfectly against some of the bigger fish in the East (i.e., Florida, Tampa, Toronto) and has them even with most teams in the playoff picture. As exemplified Sunday, Carolina is a scary hockey club. Avoiding them is paramount, but outside of them, the Rangers’ season results will give them confidence against other opponents.
The postseason is always a different animal, but a big weekend has a young Rangers group believing that there is a chance for the unthinkable to happen this season.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!