There were denials across the board — nope, no way, in no shape or form were the Rangers thinking about the fact that this was their final game before Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, and how everything could be different when they suit up again for Tuesday match against the Islanders out at the Coliseum.
The words were the same across the board, from the coach down to the phenomenal rookie Russian goalie, that the ugly 3-2 victory over the Sharks on Saturday night was just another step in the right direction for a team that is learning how to win games when they don’t have their best, and the focus remains on their surprising push towards the playoffs.
“There’s always something,” said Chris Kreider, the main focus of the next few days when he will likely either sign a contract extension or get traded. “Part of professional hockey is finding a way to block all the extra B.S. out and find a way to get the job done.”
The leader in getting the job done has been Igor Shesterkin, who made 44 saves to win for the ninth time in his first 10 NHL starts. The Rangers (33-24-4) have now won 7 of 8, 8 of 10 and 10 of 13. They climbed to within four points of the second wild-card spot, and that’s one way to keep out the noise.
“The way to block it out is to play good hockey and win,” Kreider said. “And we’ve done that over the past few weeks, and we want to continue to do that.”
Only thing is that there are no more games between now and the deadline. There is no easy work to be done for the players to keep the thoughts out of their heads during the off day on Sunday, or during what is often one of the strangest practice days of the year with the deadline just hours away on Monday.
“There’s a lot to write about, and [the media] is busy the next 48 hours, as you should be,” coach David Quinn said. “But we’re going to practice on Monday and play the Islanders on Tuesday.”
Who, exactly, will be playing the Islanders is hard to guess. The Rangers didn’t seem to mind risking injury to all of their possible trade pieces, which, beyond Kreider, includes about half the roster. Jesper Fast made a good case for his value to a contender by potting two goals against the Sharks, the first a tap-in on a great feed from the reigniting Artemi Panarin (two assists) which gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 9:35 of a first period when they were outshot, 22-3.
“I just have to thank him for that,” Fast said about Panrin, now with 83 points on the season. “Every time he has the puck, something good is happening.”
Shesterkin then had his first real soft goal of his career, Joe Thornton sneaking one under his right arm from the left circle at 17:55 of the first. And then Thornton got another when a rebound went off his shin pad for a power-play goal at 13:47 of the second — doubling the 40-year-old’s season goal total, now at four.
But Shesterkin made a couple of outstanding saves, denying Thornton from in front to keep it close in the first, and then stopping Evander Kane on two separate breakaways in the first and second, respectively.
It allowed Panarin to sweep the puck off Kane’s stick and directly to Mika Zibanejad for a slam-dunk at 17:27 of the second that tied it, 2-2, and then Fast to get the game-winner a hack job from in front at 6:54 of the third — a dirty goal to win a dirty game when the Rangers were outshot, 46-33, and out-attempted 75-50.
But that ended the hockey portion of the pre-deadline schedule. Even if Quinn was right in saying “this has been a completely different feeling than last year,” the winning now takes a back seat to the business.
“Our guys are just going along,” Quinn said. “We’re here ’til we’re not.”