Rangers ‘finding ways to win’ as they head into the break on the right note

Rangers ‘finding ways to win’ as they head into the break on the right note

NEW YORK — Thinking back to that Monday night in the first week of December and seeing where Rangers are now may be the only surprise of this season.

Against the Blues they were 20 minutes away from another ugly defeat, perhaps a period of something drastic. A few lucky goals and the Rangers won against St. Louis.

Now they’ve reached the eight-day All-Star/CBA mandate break with a 16-4-3 run since that December night at the Garden when the Rangers were booed off the ice after two-thirds. They capped that seven-week stretch with a 4-1 win over the Golden Knights, a game that didn’t have many positives but had enough goodness from enough key players to give them two points.

“We didn’t play as perfectly as we did last year, but we still find ways to win hockey games,” said coach Gerard Gallant before returning to Prince Edward Island to spend the break with his grandchildren. “It’s coming. It’s a work in progress for us, but I like the position we’re in and I like the way we’re playing.”

Consistency is what’s been lacking in Rangers’ game this season, although it’s gotten better in the last 23 games. But filling that gap was kind of a next-man-up mentality, where it’s almost a new group of players who carry the load every night.

On Friday, it was the Chris Kreider-Vincent Trocheck-Barclay Goodrow line that hit back-to-back shifts late in the first round to give Rangers a necessary, if not quite deserved, 2-0 lead after one. Trocheck’s goal with 42.9 seconds left was his first in 11 games and only his fifth five-a-side goal of the season. In Gallant’s season-long search for some sort of fully realized four-line forward group, he may have struck the right mix of mid-sixes with this seasoned trio of experienced grinders to complement the Alexis Lafrenière-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko line, which wasn’t as dominant as on Wednesday in Toronto but had plenty of bounce and saw Chytil make it 3-1 in the third goal as he shot from Shea Theodore’s skate.

WOW FILLY FIL WOW pic.twitter.com/fIOnSJCVb5

— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 28, 2023

Goodrow was a force on that goal line on Friday, throwing Alec Martinez onto the ice before grabbing a puck to feed Trocheck for a 2-0 goal. And Trocheck picked up a turnover, driving into the net and putting down a backhand off Kreider’s knee to open the goal, a necessary goal for No. 20 after his miserable night in Toronto 48 hours earlier.

“I’ve never had a game with Goody where I was like, ‘He could have done something better,'” Trocheck said. “He just does everything right.”

Forget for the next few days that Artemi Panarin’s top line – Mika Zibanejad – Jimmy Vesey didn’t produce a ton. Forget that Vegas generated a lot from the rush and that Jaroslav Halak, suddenly the most reliable back-up goalie Rangers have had as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup since perhaps Alexandar Georgiev’s first full season, late in the second and early in the third two enormous stops made 2:1 hold.

Also forget that the fourth series, which morphed earlier in the year from a slower, heavier, older group to an all-under 25 series featuring Will Cuylle, Jake Leschyshyn and Julien Gauthier on Friday, is still not quite there is where you are would like to have it. Cuylle made his first NHL mark by dropping the gloves of Vegas heavyweight Keegan Kolesar and holding his own, an impressive touch in the otherwise unimpressive first two NHL games.

As Gallant said, this is not a fully realized team. General manager Chris Drury doesn’t have the cap space he had last year to plug every hole, but he does have some and could take a step or two to shore up the forward group in particular. Eight days for any NHL team, either before or after the All-Star Game, should set some things loose in the trading market.

But you’d much rather have 16-4-3 from an 11-10-5 start than the other way around. The Rangers are no longer locked in a playoff spot as they were at the start of the February break last season, but they do have a seven-point lead over the Sabers in ninth place. Not perfect, but not bad either, especially when you think back to 23 games ago.

“Come back and keep building this thing,” Jacob Trouba said. “I like where we are and where we are trending as a team. We’re getting better and better. I think we will.”

(Photo by Filip Chytil: Elsa / Getty Images)

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