As deadline approaches, Rangers must be careful not to go overboard

By show of hands, who had this team in second place with 79 points through 59 games? With a 37-17-5 record, the Rangers have had a splendid season. They entered Sunday tied in points with the Penguins, who take on the first place Hurricanes this afternoon in Pittsburgh.

Regardless if the Pens win to move two up in the standings, the Blueshirts would have a game at hand and still hold the first tiebreaker with 32 regulation wins. If that is the first round match-up, the final three meetings between the old Patrick Division rivals will likely decide home ice. Something probably more vital to the younger Rangers.

Whatever happens when they return Tuesday to host Anaheim, it’s been an exciting year. Under Gerard Gallant, the postseason was an expectation. However, even the most optimistic fan probably didn’t have this team 20 games over .500. Eighteen points clear of ninth seed Columbus and 25 better than the desperate Islanders who pull into Penn Station this Thursday, the Rangers are a playoff lock.

It’s been that way for a while. In an Eastern Conference where we already know the eight teams who’ll compete for the Prince of Wales Trophy when the postseason begins, it’s all about putting yourself in the best position possible. A Carolina win in regulation today would give them 89 points. Ten clear of second. Even without Tony DeAngelo, they continue to be successful.

If the Canes look like a runaway Metropolitan Division winner vying for home ice with current Atlantic Division leading Florida, then that leaves six teams competing for seeding for the first round.

It’s a bit more undecided in the Atlantic where the Lightning have dropped three in a row. The Maple Leafs can pass them with a win against the Sabres in the NHL Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field. The outdoor game can be seen on TNT or SportsNet. The Bolts are in action later tonight at the Canucks.

A hot stretch led by David Pastrnak and emerging Calder candidate Jeremy Swayman (eight straight wins) have the Bruins up to 77 points. They’re in the first wildcard. But can move up if Tampa continues to falter with Toronto having goalie issues. Much is still up for grabs.

A much needed 7-4 road win in Dallas gave the Rangers exactly what they needed last night. They erased an early two-goal deficit by getting the next four in a high scoring first period. Artemi Panarin had his best game of the season by recording his third career five-point game. That included his 16th goal that made it 4-2. He set up four more to earn the game’s First Star.

After allowing a soft goal to Esa Lindell early and then giving up a Tyler Seguin deflection, Igor Shesterkin settled down. He finished with 29 saves on 33 shots. Many of those saves were tough due to a very aggressive Stars’ mindset which included bumping Shesterkin without any resistance. A sequence where Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox just stood and watched the Rangers’ MVP absorb contact was unacceptable.

Without the brilliant play of their number one goalie, they’d be sunk. More often than not, the 26-year old Russian netminder has bailed out his team. Too often on Saturday night, the Stars got whatever they wanted. There were far too many high danger chances. It was too easy for the fast skating Stars to gain the zone and generate good shots on Shesterkin.

He’s unflappable. But he can’t save this team by himself. As was evidenced in ugly defeats to the Wild and Blues, even the great Igor isn’t perfect. He needs help. The six goals they scored sans a Ryan Strome empty netter were a step in the right direction.

So too were the contributions support players Greg McKegg, Julien Gauthier, Dryden Hunt and Barclay Goodrow supplied. Scoring depth has been an issue. The over reliance on the stars has been a common theme. A Mika Zibanejad power play goal that tied the game made it 39 of 43 PPG’s for the first unit. A remarkable number. That lethal unit has the team ranked second in the league at 26.5 percent.

It features league-leading power play goal getter Chris Kreider, whose 19 are the most in the NHL. Half his career high 38 goals have come on the man-advantage. With a PPG yesterday, Zibanejad is up to 12. He has 23 on the season. That’s 31 for the Rangers’ top two finishers. Panarin, Strome and Fox comprise the rest. More setup men than shooters, they have a combined eight on the power play. Five for Panarin and three for Strome. Fox has none.

It’s great to have a top unit that can do so much damage. However, the games get tougher. There will continue to be more attention paid to Fox, who runs the power play. Recent opponents are attacking him up high to limit time and space. If you give Fox time, he’ll find open teammates. A great passer of the puck, his 50 assists lead all defensemen. It was nice to see him score a goal on a tip-in of a Jacob Trouba shot.

While Kreider and Zibanejad have starred on Broadway to score the big goals in most wins, the Rangers will need more games like last night from Panarin. The Bread Man is a very skilled player with great peripheral vision. He can find open ice.

The best part about Saturday night is he was able to do it at five-on-five. No better example than controlling play and finding a pinching Trouba for an open shot Fox redirected to make it 3-2. Ditto on Panarin’s 16th where he took a pass from K’Andre Miller and fired a wrist shot by Jake Oettinger to increase the lead to 4-2.

It was a rarity to see guys like McKegg, Gauthier, Hunt and even Filip Chytil have an impact. Gauthier set up the McKegg goal that started the comeback. Hunt notched a career best three assists by playing an assertive game. Chytil made a defensive play that led to Goodrow beating Oettinger five-hole to give them a 6-4 lead with the Stars pressing.

Secondary scoring is a necessity come postseason. As the trade deadline approaches in just over a week, it’ll fall on Chris Drury to make the key decisions that can improve the roster.

What he must determine is are the Rangers a piece or two away from serious contention. To the naked eye, it doesn’t seem so. That’s why I’d tread carefully as March 21 approaches.

Is it worth overpaying for a proven commodity such as J.T. Miller if the Canucks make him available? Vancouver is only a few points out of the wildcard. They’ve been playing better under coach Bruce Boudreau. They could decide to keep Miller, who leads them in scoring and has another year left on his current deal.

I’ve mentioned the Canucks’ rumored interest in young Rangers’ rookie defenseman Braden Schneider. Not something I’d even contemplate. I’m a fan of Miller, but not at the cost of Schneider, who has the look of a shutdown right defenseman that can contribute offensively due to his skating. He has a bright future.

With Kaapo Kakko still uncertain, the Blueshirts need to upgrade at right wing. As honest a game as Hunt plays, he isn’t the right fit for the second line. He’s better suited in a checking role. Preferably on the fourth line. His hitting and energy are a plus. Any offense is a bonus.

Who is the missing piece that can fit with Panarin and Strome? Two very unselfish players who think pass more than shot. That would explain the combined 30 goals between them. Although I have no idea how Strome blows so many chances with open nets. At least he didn’t miss last night.

If both Miller and Filip Forsberg aren’t available, then what. Phil Kessel can be had for a mid-level prospect and mid-round draft pick. While he isn’t the same scorer he was with the Pens, Kessel can still get off his shot. A scenery change can work for the two-time Stanley Cup winner.

Let’s say Drury were to add two forwards. One a proven scorer who can also play second power play. The other a solid bottom six forward that can forecheck and contribute offensively.

I’ve been on record as saying I’d love a reunion with Colin Blackwell. A guy who plays bigger than his 5-9 frame. He had success here last year with Strome and Panarin. If you put him in a secondary role, that could work. He also kills penalties and is a shorthanded threat.

Whether it’s a Blackwell, Vladislav Namestnikov, Connor Brown, Artturi Lehkonen or Tyler Motte, those are the type of high energy players who are capable of helping a team too reliant on its top six. The cost shouldn’t be as much.

What about Rickard Rakell of the Ducks for the second line? The 28-year old is unrestricted this summer. With Anaheim fading, acquiring Rakell could make sense. Although he’s not what he once was, he still has 16 goals and 28 points. That includes five power play goals. A good right shot, he could be worth exploring for Drury.

Another area the organization could decide to upgrade is third pair, left defenseman. Patrik Nemeth has played better since his wife gave birth to a baby boy. He even scored a big goal late in the second period last night. So, it isn’t a necessity to replace him in the top six.

Besides, the cost of a Ben Chiarot or Hampus Lindholm will be astronomical. Is it really worth coughing up high picks and possibly a good prospect (Brennan Othmann, Will Cuylle, Zac Jones) for a rental? I doubt it.

The truth is this team isn’t a couple of pieces away. They’d have to catch lightning in a bottle to make a deep run. This isn’t to suggest it isn’t possible. The core is good. They’re a close knit group with chemistry.

It hinges on Shesterkin. He’s the straw that stirs the drink. At 29 wins with a 2.07 GAA and .938 save percentage, no goalie has been better. He’s certainly capable of stealing a series. But is it similar to Henrik Lundqvist in ’06-07 and ’07-08? Given the age of the current roster, I’m inclined to say yes.

Realistically, they could be capable of getting out of the first round. That would be a good accomplishment. Especially against the battle tested Pens, who look like the likely opponent.

If the first game two weeks ago was any indication, it would be a tough series. Especially facing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Jake Guentzel. Tristan Jarry has had a great bounce back season. The Pens are no longer a run and gun team. Think tight checking with Crosby and Malkin the game-breakers.

In terms of seriously competing against possibly the Canes, Lightning or Panthers, they’re deeper. Only Florida doesn’t defend well. Plus Sergei Bobrovsky doesn’t have the best track record. The Canes and Bolts are more proven.

From my observations, Carolina appears to be the best team. They defend extremely well and have a good forecheck. Five-on-five is a strength. The only question is in net with Freddie Andersen. A veteran goalie who’s had a great season. But like Bobrovsky isn’t a proven playoff performer. But they have superb depth and would be tough to beat in a seven-game series.

If they are right, the Lightning are a handful. The two-time defending champs boast the game’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. With apologies to Shesterkin, who’s having the best season, it’s Vasilevskiy who has the proven track record. A Vezina winner who’s come up clutch in elimination games, he’s the one goalie you’d go with in a Game Seven.

When you factor in a deep roster that features stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point along with Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning are championship caliber. They also boast depth thanks to veterans Pat Maroon and Corey Perry along with Ross Colton, they’re not a team you’d want to draw. Especially if they don’t get eliminated early.

How do the Rangers compare to Boston or Toronto? The scoring isn’t as good if it’s the Leafs. If it’s the Bruins, who play more of a checking style that now involves their top three lines, it’s a little closer. A goalie match-up of Swayman versus Shesterkin would be interesting. Of course, this is a hypothetical. Probably not realistic.

The Leafs score at a high rate and boast the best power play along with the game’s top finisher in Auston Matthews. He only enters today with 44 goals. Five up on Leon Draisaitl and six ahead of Kreider. He missed some games and still should hit 60. The combo of Matthews and Mitch Marner is deadly. With Jack Campbell out and having slumped after a strong first half, who stops the puck? Maybe they can call Felix Potvin.

Whether they’re ready for prime time remains to be seen. There will be meaningful hockey at The Garden for the first time in five years. That’s significant. Whatever they decide, it must be with the best interest in mind.

If it’s not this year, ’22-23 could be a better time frame. By then, the roster should have a different look. Shesterkin will be 27 and in his prime. Just like another Rangers legend Mike Richter. That could be a good omen.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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