Much of the talk surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning this season has revolved around their charge for a third straight championship, a feat that hasn’t been achieved since 1982. The New York Rangers, however, achieved a three-peat of their own Saturday night in Tampa Bay, as they swept the three game regular season series against the defending back to back champions on the back of a 2-1 regulation win. On top of that, it was also the first time the Rangers defeated the Lightning in regulation on Tampa’s turf in nearly seven years. It was a spirited win from a young Rangers group, who once again came from behind after giving up a Brayden Point goal in period one. It was knotted up by Jacob Trouba midway through the middle period, and it remained 1-1 until the final fifteen seconds of the game. The Rangers had chance after chance on the power play to no avail, gathering only three shots on goal on their first five power play attempts. Chris Kreider caught a stick up high to draw one more penalty with just over two minutes left in regulation, and the PP went to work one more time, proving to be the decisive difference. A Zibanejad one timer off of a cross ice pass from Panarin beat Vasilevskiy as time ticked away, and secured the win for Shesterkin and the Rangers on a night where the New York netminder posted 28 saves on 29 shots for a .966 save percentage.
It was a playoff type atmosphere in a tight checking, high intensity matchup for the Rangers, who’s coach has made it known he is working on dialing the inexperienced group in on a playoff mentality down the stretch, as only twenty games remain for New York in the regular season. They sit third in the division, three points over the Capitals with a game in hand. It will take some more consistent success to stay clear of the wildcard spots and avoid a first round matchup with the Hurricanes or Panthers. Their record of 39-18-5 is extremely impressive considering they missed the playoffs for consecutive years prior to this season, but they still trail several teams that have paced the Eastern conference for the bulk of the season, including Tampa Bay. With plenty left to play for in the regular season, it is looking more and more likely that the Rangers will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in round one. That has been a less favorable matchup for New York over the course of this regular season, with three more meetings still remaining between the two rivals. That leaves time for the Rangers to figure out this Penguins team, which has really come alive in the second half of this season, ahead of a potential playoff battle.
Despite the success the Rangers have found in the 2021-2022 season, there are still some valid concerns surrounding the team as they charge into the playoffs, the foremost being Igor Shesterkin’s stellar play in goal masking several deficiencies of the team’s 5 on 5 play, which should sound vaguely familiar if you followed the Rangers at all through the 2010s. General Manager Chris Drury has begun making some tweaks to the roster, adding Frank Vatrano from the Florida panthers in exchange for a fourth round pick, but with practically every big ticket trade target off the board as we roll into the deadline on Monday, tweaking appears to be the only thing Drury can do to the roster at this point as the chance to make a big splash has come and gone. Another concern for the Rangers is the health and play of 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko, who has been sidelined with an injury for weeks and weeks, and wasn’t doing much offensively before finding himself on the LTIR. The optimistic view would be that he had been fighting a nagging injury all year, and his time away from the team has given him a chance to get back to 100% and become a regular contributor within the top six forward group. That’s pure speculation on my part though, and the reality is if he comes back and doesn’t find that next level this year, the Rangers will likely continue to be a step behind the big guns of the East in 5 on 5 offensive production. I will not speculate on his future beyond this season with the Rangers, but you wouldn’t be illogical to be questioning it at this point.
With just over 24 hours left before the roster freeze at the trade deadline, I’m expecting at least one more move made by Drury to bolster the depth of this Rangers team. I’m very satisfied with the addition of Vatrano and view it as a move that fills the hole left by the season ending injury to Sammy Blais. I’d hope to see a depth defenseman added at low cost, particularly someone like Mark Giordano, who is a proven leader with tons of experience that could stabilize the left side of the blue line. If Igor Shesterkin can play at the historic level he has so far behind this current D core, imagine would he could do if it was at the level of top D cores around the league. Shesterkin’s play has brought a young team to new heights, and his Vezina/Hart trophy caliber season makes me believe anything can happen with him between the pipes for a playoff run. That doesn’t mean this team doesn’t have lots of room to improve though. I’ll catch up with you again following the trade deadline to assess the situation heading into the month of April.
Edit: As of 3:15 pm on Sunday 3/20, it appears Mark Giordano has been traded to the Maple Leafs.