In the land of the truly lousy, the mediocre are Kings … er, Rangers.
The Blueshirts got one Sunday night at the Garden against the eyesore team from LA that had entered the match with four straight regulation defeats, one victory in its previous 10 games (1-8-1) and in 30th-place overall.
It was choppy, whack-a-puck hockey that was hardly a showcase for artistry, but that should not stop the Blueshirts from framing this 4-1 triumph over an opponent that hoped to lull the home team into impatience and frustration the way the Sabres did on Friday.
Yes, the Rangers allowed 43 shots, all but one stopped by Igor Shesterkin, but you know how when it’s 97 degrees with low humidity and folks like to say you won’t sweat because it’s a dry heat? Well, this was a comparatively comfortable 42-save night for the 24-year-old Russian rookie, who has unambiguously ascended to the top of the team’s goaltending pecking order after posting his fifth victory in six starts.
“The best guy is going to continue to play,” David Quinn said. “Keeping people sharp is no longer a high priority of ours.
“It’s going to be winning hockey games.”
The Rangers, who have won 27 and lost 27 (27-23-4), seem to believe they can still make a run at the playoffs. If so, the priority is going to be winning a lot of hockey games, and soon. The Blueshirts will depart Monday for a three-game trip to Winnipeg, Minnesota and Columbus as the East’s 12th-place team, nine points behind second wild card Carolina with one game in hand.
It’s going to take a streak, which is something foreign to this team that has won as many as three straight only once, just before Thanksgiving.
“True, but a streak has to start with one,” Chris Kreider said. “We’re cognizant of the standings and where we are. Obviously we need to go on a little run. We don’t necessarily talk about it a lot, but what has been said is that our fate is in our own hands.”
This was one in which the large, passive Kings attempted to strangle the Rangers through the neutral zone. Unlike in Friday’s 3-2 defeat to the passive, trapping Sabres, the Blueshirts did not insist on pounding round pegs into square holes by trying to dipsy-doodle, one-on-three or two-on-five. Instead, the Rangers adopted a ground-game mentality.
It sure helped when the club grabbed a 1-0 at 2:23 of the first period when Greg McKegg drilled one into an open side from the left after Jonathan Quick had been caught following a tricky bounce off the back wall on a Ryan Lindgren dump-in. Brett Howden gathered the puck below the goal line and sent one across for McKegg.
The goal did more than codify the blueprint for success in this one. It gave the Rangers some confidence. The last thing they needed was to be locked in a scoreless game — or trail — into the middle of the second period.
“It kept frustration from setting in,” Kreider said. “It was important for us to play with a lead.”
The team’s defensive structure has improved noticeably over the last month or so. The club’s issues have had far more to do with poor decision-making and lack of puck support through the neutral zone and across the offensive line. There have been issues with gaps and ceding the defensive blue line but while coverage may not be quite reminiscent of 2011-12, neither does it conjure memories of 2017-18 or 2018-19. Fact is, the Blueshirts have surrendered two goals or fewer in six of their last 10 games and seven of the last 14.
“We did a good job backchecking, clogging the middle and playing with our heads on a swivel,” said Kreider, employing clichés appropriately. “We weren’t puck watching. We kept it simple, got into a lot of battles on the wall and we stayed with it.”
The 1-0 lead was a thick as it got until Kaapo Kakko broke a 12-game drought and scored his second goal in his last 33 games in converting a Filip Chytil feed at 9:20. Trevor Moore cut the margin to 2-1 at 10:47 but Artemi Panarin went to the net to slam home a right pad rebound of a two-on-one drive by Ryan Strome at 17:12 to salt it away.
It wasn’t pretty, except for the fact that there’s no such thing as an ugly victory for a team in the Rangers’ straits. Now, the road, where Shesterkin will start away from MSG for the first time. Now the road, where the Rangers need to streak.
“We’re facing a challenge,” Strome said. “And we’re embracing it.”