Rangers have laid the groundwork for sustained post-season success


Rangers have laid the groundwork for sustained post-season success

Seasons like the one Rangers just wrapped don’t come around often.

No one needed to say that to Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad after their 2-1 loss to Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals Saturday night in Tampa that ended the Rangers’ amazing — and compelling — playoff run.

It was written all over their faces. It was there in her lack of words. It hung over them as they exited the Amalie Arena side by side.

The two longest-serving Rangers were so close they could taste it. After four straight seasons of missing the playoffs while rebuilding the club without their elimination from the qualifying round in the 2020 bubble playoffs, Kreider and Zibanejad finally returned to the Stanley Cup tournament every hockey player dreams of. And hey, they came two wins away from the cup final before the defending champions ousted them back-to-back.

Rangers have a foundation to return to the postseason on a regular basis.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

However, a lot has to be right for a team to get to this point. A lot came together for the Rangers, who made a splash in the NHL with a great performance in the regular season and an inspirational performance in the playoffs with two series comebacks.

But who says it can’t happen again?

Rangers put everything together this season. President and general manager Chris Drury effectively built on the foundation his predecessor Jeff Gorton laid for him by bringing in sticky boys, some skill-balancing courage, and a head coach with the right temperament and accurate coaching style for this team needed in Gerard Gallant.

“Coming here, I knew it was a talented group, an ability group,” Gallant said this postseason. “I knew there were a lot of young people in our group and all I’ve tried with our coaching staff is to get them to try and believe in themselves. When you play the game right, good things happen.”

And that’s exactly what Gallant did. Rangers were once a team that couldn’t avoid each other. With so much skill across the line-up and an otherworldly goalkeeper in Igor Shesterkin, the basis for success has been in place for a couple of years.

Igor Shesterkin saves during Rangers' Game 6 loss to Lightning.
Igor Shesterkin saves during Rangers’ Game 6 loss to Lightning.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Now this team believes they can win. It has a winning culture and attitude. And now players have the experience to make something out of it.

Of course, the off-season will inevitably bring roster changes. Rangers will not look exactly the same in 2022-23 as they have this season. This is where things could get tricky, especially with Rangers’ particular locker room dynamic. It’s still a business, but being in the early stages of consistent success needs to be approached with caution.

There’s still a question mark hanging over Rangers’ center spot in the second row as Ryan Strome moves closer to an unrestricted free hand. The “A” on his jersey is there for a reason, and one of his best friends on the team is the organization’s highest-paid player in Artemi Panarin.

The three forward trade deadline acquisitions — Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Tyler Motte — appeared to complete the team in certain areas. Drury must decide who to give priority as all three move closer to full agency. Kaapo Kakko is set to become a restricted free agent and after the 2019 runner-up was scratched in Game 6 on Saturday night, his standing with the club is suddenly tarnished. Also, Kevin Rooney, an underrated player who has played a key role in Rangers’ success this season, is on the verge of becoming UFA.

Kapo Kakko
Kaapo Kakko’s future at Rangers is suddenly bleak.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

We might even see Vitali Kravtsov in a Rangers shirt again. The Russia forward, who turned down an AHL call-up earlier this season, signed a one-year, $875,000 contract on Sunday.

One thing’s for sure: Rangers have their No. 1 goaltender. Shesterkin is just getting started, and his 62-29-7 record with an average of 2.31 goals against goals against and 0.928 percent in saves over 100 games in splits of three Seasons is as promising as it gets. He can – and likely will – stop Rangers for the upcoming playoff runs.

Seasons like this are rare – but they’re always possible when you have confidence, experience and a goalkeeper like Shesterkin.

“Great goalie, great season,” said Jacob Trouba. “His numbers, everything, speaks for itself. He was the best player on our team and the biggest and most important player on our team. I don’t think anyone in the room or out of the room will dispute that. He is a special goalkeeper.”

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