CHICAGO – You know, maybe it's not all lip service.
For months the Rangers have been preaching about togetherness, the screaming of their team and the good feeling in the locker room. It sounded good, but how much did it really mean when they stepped on the water at the edge of the playoff picture and another sell-off soon approached the trading deadline?
But all of these platitudes continue to sound right, as the noise of the Monday deadline is just a low hum among the boisterous celebrations. The fact that legend Henrik Lundqvist is the third goalkeeper in a two-goalkeeper rotation is much easier to ignore, given the continuing excellence of aspiring No. 1 Igor Shesterkin and the steadfastness of Alex Georgiev.
When Shesterkin returned from an absence of three games due to a minor ankle injury, the Rangers used a wild third period to score a 6-3 win over the Blackhawks on Wednesday night. It was the fifth win in six games for the Rangers (31-24-4) and their twelfth win in the last 16 since this three-goal situation started with Shesterkin's draft on January 6th. The 24-year-old Russian has now won seven of his first eight NHL starts, including his two starts on the street.
"It's a really good feeling in this locker room," said coach David Quinn. The players' mothers were here to celebrate as the club continued this journey in two games against the Hurricanes in Raleigh, NC, on Friday night. "We've really become a team in the past two months. Listen, you have to win games if you don't play great."
No, it was never nice, even if the teams scored seven goals in the first 13:37 of the third half. But the Rangers had five of them and the Blackhawks (26-26-8) could never keep up.
"It is always fun to win," said Chris Kreider, whose value for the Rangers and the retail market continues to grow as he collected a goal and two assists and was a force all night. "You want to do it right, so the process has to be a little bit better."
That sounds like a player who is either unaware or not concerned about an immediate future that is very uncertain. This small run is unlikely to change the mind of General Manager Jeff Gorton, but he must have made the team a lot more comfortable – in direct contrast to the previous two February when the upcoming sell-offs brought them a cloud of darkness ,
"It sure feels different than last year," said Quinn. "Our boys are looking forward to Friday night because there will be a playoff game for us in many ways."
Right, the Rangers are six points behind Carolina to take second place on the wildcard, with two teams in between. It's difficult to compete in a league with three-point games, but playing meaningful hockey is still an important development tool for the youngest squad in the league.
And they saw it during the first 40 minutes when Filip Chytils 1:58 at night by Dominik Kubalik was balanced by the first of two.
"I think we were lucky to go 1-1 in the third round," said Kreider. "Igor kept us in there."
Shesterkin was consistently solid and ended with 37 saves, while he was certainly upset about the two he allowed in the chaotic third period. After Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome scored less than two minutes to 3-1, Kubalik scored his second goal of 3-2 at 6:05 a.m. But then Kreider and Panarin came 53 seconds apart 5: 2, before Drake Caggiula and Mika Zibanejad alternately ended the classification.
The glowing line from Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich scored eight points together, which makes it much easier to look beyond the fact that both flanks are hot commodities on the retail market. Keep on winning and this playoff conversation doesn't sound like lip service either.
"It definitely helps," said Quinn. “Our boys did a really good job [the distractions] out."