There have been several overarching narratives that have remained constant throughout the Rangers 2021-2022 season. We’ve been hearing about the dominant play and historic stat line of Igor Shesterkin all year, Chris Kreider came out the gates hot and stayed that way into April, finishing with 52 goals, obliterating his previous career high of 28. The Rangers have shattered pre season expectations all year long, finishing with 52 wins, reaching the 50 win mark for the first time since winning the President’s trophy en route to a conference final appearance in 2015. There are, however, substantial contrasts between the state of the team before and after the trade deadline beyond the roster additions.
Roster additions are a good place to start though. In my last two blogs we did some speculating on what the Rangers would do at the trade deadline, and I couldn’t be much happier with what ultimately ended up unfolding. The first splash was the acquisition of Frank Vatrano from the Panthers for a mere fourth round pick in the draft. Vatrano has stepped in on the Kreider Zibanejad line and thrived, potting some huge goals at pivotal moments and even notching a multi goal performance against Buffalo. He is an in your face forechecker with a shoot first, ask questions never mentality, and his chemistry with that line has been immaculate. Andrew Copp was acquired on deadline day and has mostly played with Panarin and Strome. He arguably has been the best addition of the year, finishing the season with a nearly identical stat line to Ryan Strome while playing a much more physical game, and he even netted a hat trick against the Islanders in a win at UBS Arena. Tyler Motte was also brought in to bolster the bottom six, and was a great checking forward in his short stint so far in New York before suffering an injury that he will likely be returning from at some point during round one of the playoffs. Justin Braun is a good insurance policy should a top six defenseman get hurt, as he was the Flyers best blue liner, in a defensive sense, in what was a miserable year for that team.
What else has changed? Detractors of the Rangers have been critical of their offensive production at even strength, the argument being the potent Rangers power play was inflating their numbers and causing them to overachieve. Critics have also said the level of play Shesterkin has been bringing is masking some defensive deficiencies, which I would have strongly agreed with before the deadline. Something changed after the deadline though. Their xGF% at five on five jumped after March 21st. Shesterkin was still playing very well, but not quite as lights out as he had been the first half of the year, and the goals against per game remained low, finishing with a 2.49, good for second best in the league. It’s apparent that the additions made the Rangers a more complete team, not only adding scoring depth at even strength but also emboldening the rest of the lineup, including defensemen, to play a more complete game. Add in the return of Kaapo Kakko from injury, along with Artemi Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere getting hotter than they have been all season, and this Rangers team that is gearing up for a round one date with Pittsburgh on Tuesday looks much more threatening than the team that started the season with an embarrassing loss to their rivals in the Washington Capitals.
The Rangers look primed for playoffs, and the fans are fired up. The series will kick off in Madison Square Garden for games one and two (I will be at game two,) providing a great chance to get an early leg up on the Pens, who are missing starting goalie and 2022 All Star Tristan Jarry. Casey Desmith will get the game one start opposite Shesterkin, and Penguins top six winger Jason Zucker also remains sidelined with an injury. Some fans and media around the league haven’t given the Rangers credit they deserve as a threat to any team in the Playoffs, and so this team that already defied all expectations this year is ready to continue that trend with a deep run. Let’s get the Garden rocking, start strong this week, and chip away at 16 wins. If you’re at MSG for game two this Thursday, look for the skinny blonde kid in the white Shesterkin jersey with a mixed drink in hand yelling obscenities at the guys in black and gold, come say what’s up. It’s playoff time, baby. Let’s roll.