Shesterkin, Rangers make it three shutouts in a row for first time in 50 years, Strome tallies twice in latest win, Panarin adds two assists


History has been made again. In a feel good story that’s seen the team surprise by challenging for first place, the Rangers continue to win hockey games at a high rate.

The latest highlight was their 3-0 shutout victory of the Jets made it three straight games with a shutout. Something that hadn’t been done in 49 years by the franchise. After following up Alex Georgiev’s shutout of the Flyers with one over the Red Wings, Igor Shesterkin pitched his second consecutive shutout last night.

His 31 saves made it three in a row by Ranger goalies for the first time since the 1972-73 season. It was between Feb. 4-10, 1973 that the combination of Gilles Villemure and Ed Giacomin pitched three straight shutouts by identical 6-0 scores in wins over the Flames and Islanders, who they beat twice over a home and home series to highlight a 10-game win streak.

This time, mark the dates between April 13-19. The first two were 4-0 victories over the Flyers and Red Wings. The third came on Tuesday night by a 3-0 count at MSG. After Georgiev stopped all 28 shots versus the Flyers, Shesterkin has stopped the last 51 in home wins over the Red Wings and Jets to record his fifth and sixth shutouts. That’ll cap off a Vezina season for the unflappable 26-year old goalie.

While all of this is nice including Chris Kreider still searching for four goals in the remaining five games to tie Jaromir Jagr, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. The numbers which now include the team’s first 50 win season since ’14-15 are what they are. It isn’t about that. It’s what happens afterwards starting in May.

At the present, they again find themselves tied for first with the Hurricanes. With each having five games left including one pivotal head to head meeting on April 26th at The Garden, Carolina holds the first tiebreaker with one more win in regulation (43). Both have 106 points.

The next games for each are Thursday night. The Rangers will try to beat their kryptonite in the Islanders at Elmont while the Hurricanes host the same Jets, who are all but eliminated from the playoffs.

The same situation for the Islanders, who live to beat the Rangers even if it’s for pride. It’ll be their third Stanley Cup game. They’re two-for-two so far. It would be nice for the Blueshirts to flip the script. I actually have no expectations. If you don’t expect anything, you don’t set yourself up for failure. But possibly surprise. How’s that for a concept.

Anyone who thinks tomorrow’s game doesn’t matter isn’t paying attention. I could care less about first place. The Islanders play the tenacious checking style our team is gonna see in the postseason. Winning at that would be a confidence boost.

Beating hapless opponents such as Philadelphia, Detroit and Winnipeg doesn’t appeal. At the end of the day, they’re wins. That means they did what they’re supposed to do by getting the two points. In beating these cupcakes, it means the Rangers are winning against the teams they should. That’s why they’re competing for home ice over the first two rounds.

Of the three wins, last night was the toughest. That’s because the Jets were still alive. So, they actually played better overall than I’m used to seeing. They were more cautious and tighter defensively over the first half of the game. That meant not many scoring chances on either side and a kind of vanilla game.

However, with one great rush by Mika Zibanejad and set up of a Ryan Strome power play goal, the game changed. Following a play started by Artemi Panarin with Zibanejad neatly passing for a good Strome deflection on an undisciplined penalty former Ranger Morgan Barron took [high-sticking], things finally opened up.

It was almost too much for the Rangers, who were clumsy defensively in the final few minutes of the second period. Unless you think giving up wide open chances to Nik Ehlers and Kyle Connor are a positive. The only good part was Shesterkin, who bailed out K’Andre Miller twice on Ehlers’ opportunities in both the second and third. It wasn’t one of his better nights.

He wasn’t alone either. How many times did the Jets counterattack with speed and nearly tie it up due to blown coverages? Thankfully, Shesterkin covered up the tracks with some sparkling saves where he got across to shut the door. He definitely had to work for the shutout.

It wasn’t until some puck wizardry from Panarin with under eight minutes left in the third period allowed Adam Fox to skate into open space and fire home a wrist shot past Eric Comrie to give them some breathing room that things cooled down. It was Fox’s first goal in 13 games. He has 11 for the season along with 58 assists. One more point and he hits 70. A figure Panarin, Kreider and Zibanejad already have eclipsed.

With two assists, Panarin now is up to 70 apples for the season. Not only is it a career high. But he joined exclusive company. The Bread Man is the first New York Ranger to record 70 assists in a season since Wayne Gretzky back in ’96-97. Sergei Zubov achieved it in ’93-94 and Mark Messier did in ’91-92. Brian Leetch had 70 assists three times.

For ’21-22, Panarin leads the team in scoring with 92 points (22-70-92). He probably won’t reach the century mark. Something he would’ve done if not for Covid in ’19-20 when he wound up with 95 points (32-63-95). The main thing is he’s heated up at the right time.

Even better, Andrew Copp continues to pile up points. The good Copp racked up two more assists including a primary helper that resulted in Strome’s empty netter that put a bow on the victory. Since being acquired from Winnipeg, Copp is 5-10-15, plus-11 in 14 games as a Blueshirt.

He is up to a new career high 50 points including career bests in goals (18) and assists (32). Copp wasn’t playing a top six role with the Jets. He was top nine where he went 13-22-35 in 56 contests. Aside from the production, he has excellent chemistry with both Panarin and Strome. They were in fact the best line last night.

The only other thing I didn’t like was Ryan Reaves. He didn’t belong on the ice against a fast skating opponent like Winnipeg. I know Gerard Gallant loves him. But when you watch Reaves caught out of position on a Blake Wheeler opportunity that Igor swallowed up, it’s due to the difference in speed.

Play Reaves against teams like the Islanders. Not skill teams who are too fast for him to make an impact. Hint. Pens. Canes. Potential match-ups in the first two rounds depending on what happens. That also applies to the Lightning and Panthers.

I’d prefer Jonny Brodzinski on the fourth line for certain games with Kevin Rooney and Dryden Hunt. Brodzinski is a better skater and can create more. Reaves is only going to be effective against plodding teams who play physical. Think Washington.

If you don’t think Tyler Motte is missed, you aren’t watching. Rooney is a solid checking pivot. In a perfect world, your checking line would be Rooney with Hunt and Motte. That would leave both Reaves and Brodzinski as valuable extras.

A better observation. Braden Schneider had a strong game. He’s extremely confident with the puck. Even better, he really allows Patrik Nemeth to play his game. So, if that’s the third pair at the start of the first round, I’m fine with it. I would expect Gallant to give Justin Braun another game or two. Maybe Braun gets back in for the Islanders.

I thought the third line had several effective shifts. The best coming when a forechecking Filip Chytil stayed with the puck and came around the Winnipeg net for a sneaky backhand wraparound try that Comrie make a good save on to get a stoppage.

Chytil continues to impress with his more straight ahead game by using his speed to get in on the cycle and create scoring chances. He’s locked up a spot with Barclay Goodrow, who is such a key glue forward for this roster. He can win face-offs, kill penalties, deliver a big check and play the same agitating style that made him so valuable for the Lightning.

Alexis Lafreniere was okay. He got two shots on goal. One came off a great Shesterkin outlet where he was able to get a long shot on Comrie for the save. The other was off transition where he took a tough high shot from the circle that Comrie was able to blocker away.

Lafreniere has chemistry with Chytil and Goodrow. With Kaapo Kakko out for the rest of the regular season, this is his chance to prove he belongs. His 17 even strength goals are noteworthy. He’s tied with Panarin for second on the team behind Kreider, who paces them with 22 goals at even strength.

If you were to go off the last two years, only Kreider has more even strength goals (31) than Lafreniere and Panarin, who each have 29 combined. Zibanejad clocks in at 25. That’s significant.

We all know Lafreniere isn’t a finished product yet. He still averages under 14 minutes per game. He’s not getting top power play minutes. It’ll continue to be minimal as part of the second unit which features Chytil, Copp, Frank Vatrano, Jacob Trouba and sometimes Kakko if healthy. It depends on what the staff decides. I don’t see how there’s a spot for both Lafreniere and Kakko. Let Gallant worry about that.

There’s really not much else to add. Shesterkin can cover up the mistakes. But he shouldn’t need to. I would look for them to play better defensively versus the Islanders in the final meeting of the season.

I’ve seen a few of our chat on Twitter worry about the Islanders taking liberties. I’m not worried about that. That’s what you have Reaves for. He’ll play. It’s also the perfect opponent because the Islanders have Matt Martin and Ross Johnston. You have to keep those guys honest.

This isn’t last year. We know what to expect. A hard checking game. The only thing I’d suggest is for our players to be aware of where they are. Be aggressive and forecheck the Isles. The more proactive they are, the better they can get out unscathed.

My three stars have been up for a while. If you want to vote on the Steven McDonald poll, go right ahead.

I voted for Kreider. You can easily make a case for three or four players. Maybe even five. But remember. Shesterkin is Team MVP. His season will be etched in Rangers lore. Let’s hope that’s a good thing for the rest of the Spring.

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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