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Somehow, the New York Rangers managed to get to the 2022 Eastern Conference Final without facing a starting goaltender.
They went through Casey DeSmith, Louis Domingue and Tristan Jarry in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh in the second round in Game 7 on Monday night with a 6-2 win, facing Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov.
What could have been in this series if Carolina had its best player, Frederik Andersen? The Rangers will have a much more difficult test in the next round against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning, but after winning two Game 7s, you can’t count them out.
“We don’t go away,” forward Chris Kreider said. “Regardless of the score.”
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The Rangers have proved to be an especially tough out, winning their last five games when facing elimination. They excelled in the early rounds of the playoffs by using the same formula they used all season—special teams and goaltending—but the emergence of the “Kid Line” of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko and the Blueshirts’ young prospects, including defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider, put the team over the top.
The Rangers’ best players played like it, which sounds cliche but is actually crucial in the postseason. Mika Zibanejad is in the Conn Smythe conversation with 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 14 games. Adam Fox, who opened the scoring Monday, is right behind him with 18. And Chris Kreider leads the team with eight goals.
The top line of Kreider, Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano and the second line of Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp have put up gaudy numbers. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that a lot of it has been special teams production.
The narrative around the Rangers during the regular season was that they were relying too heavily on goalie Igor Shesterkin and couldn’t contain teams at five-on-five. That changed after the trade deadline when acquisitions Copp, Vatrano and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun helped control play more than the Rangers had.
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But in the postseason, the Rangers have controlled the shot share less than 50 percent of the time, according to Natural Stat Trick. They have allowed more scoring chances at five-on-five (428) than they have created (309). Their expected goal share is roughly 40 percent.
Still, the power play is especially dangerous. Panarin and Strome team up with Kreider, Zibanejad and quarterback Fox on the top unit. Copp and the Kid Line are with Jacob Trouba on the second unit. The No. 2 squad doesn’t get much ice time, but it’s worth it, whether by scoring or creating momentum.
The power play is clicking at a rate of 32.5 percent, which is the second-best mark in the playoffs behind that of the Colorado Avalanche (34.5), who will play in the Western Conference Final against the Edmonton Oilers. The Rangers scored two power-play goals Monday, marking the fourth time in club history the team has converted with the man advantage more than once in the seventh game of a series.
The kids and veterans seem to be peaking at the same time, and it just so happens to be the right time, which is what the team envisioned for this group all along.
Four years ago, the club issued the infamous “letter” to fans, explaining the intention to rebuild. The Rangers needed to get younger and faster, and rebuilds are almost impossible to avoid in the salary-cap era.
They quickly assembled an impressive group of prospects. General manager Chris Drury and his predecessor, Jeff Gorton, now the Montreal Canadiens’ executive vice president of hockey operations, are known for their keen scouting eyes, but it also took a little luck. The lottery bounced their way in 2019 and 2020, and the Rangers selected Kakko at No. 2 and Lafreniere at No. 1.
The two did not take to the NHL right away, and there were questions about the club’s development process, but those have been answered.
The 22-year-old Miller is playing against tough lines with Trouba. Schneider looks much older than 20.
Lafreniere, 20, and Kakko, 21, are becoming the impact forwards the Rangers envisioned, and Chytil, 22, is breaking out with five goals.
“I don’t think the moment is too big for any of these young guys,” Kreider said. “I think every single one of them, they’re here for a reason. Not only are they really good people, but they were brought in because they’re winners.”
That much was evident when they shut the door on Carolina in the third period. Vincent Trocheck ended Shesterkin’s shutout bid at 8:11 to make the score 4-1. The Canes had hope, but then Kakko capitalized on a turnover and sent the puck down to the other end. He won a puck battle on the side boards, and Chytil was left all alone in front of the net to snap one past Kochetkov.
“It’s amazing. We’re a resilient group in there,” Fox said. “We’ve said it all year. Backs against the wall five times now, and we’ve come through all five. We definitely want to keep this momentum going into the next round. We do have bigger goals.”
If the Rangers can take down the back-to-back reigning champs, they may reach those bigger goals.
Wednesday will mark the first conference final game at the Garden since Game 7 in 2015 against, of course, the Lightning. And star-studded lineups aside, the matchup will be billed as Shesterkin vs. Vasilevskiy.
“He’s the best goalie in the world right now,” Shesterkin said. “I think it will be a good battle.”
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