RALEIGH, N.C. — As Frank Abagnale Jr. so eloquently said in “Catch Me If You Can”: The Yankees don’t win because of the pinstripes. They win because they have Mickey Mantle.
So the Rangers aren’t winning because they’ve found a way to distract themselves from all the noise surrounding the club in the lead-up to Monday’s trade deadline. They’re winning because they have Igor Shesterkin.
The lesson in perception versus reality continued when Shesterkin collected his eighth win in nine career NHL games, backstopping his team to a 5-2 victory over the Hurricanes on Friday night.
It then seemed secondary that Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist watched a game for the first time ever as a healthy scratch, and almost tangential that Chris Kreider remained embroiled in a contract negotiation that will determine if he stays with the team or becomes the most sought-after commodity before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
Instead, the Rangers (32-24-4) have now won six of their past seven and nine of their past 12, gaining ground on the Hurricanes (34-22-4), and also creeping closer in the race for the second wild-card, now five points back of the Blue Jackets. Since Shesterkin came up from AHL Hartford on Jan. 6, the Blueshirts have won 13 of 19, and this postseason pipe dream has turned more into a horizon slowly coming into focus.
“I think we were going in the right direction before he got here, but he’s been on a hot run,” coach David Quinn said after his 24-year-old Russian rookie made 27 saves. “Our guys have a lot of confidence in all of our goalies, but he’s been the guy that keeps winning. When a guy is in there, doing what he’s doing, you team feels a little bit more confident.”
The Rangers are playing with a confidence that is undeniable, their seven-game road winning streak tying the longest in franchise history. As Ryan Strome pointed out, the most recent time they were in this building, Lundqvist needed to stand on his head and throw back the clock in a 45-save gem.
Boy, how things have changed.
“When we played these guys earlier in the year, we really, really got dominated,” Strome said after his team completed a sweep of the four-game season series. “I think it speaks volumes to how far our team has come and how we’re able to handle all different types of teams.”
This two-game road trip, with the players’ moms in tow, started with a 6-3 win over the high-flying (and terribly loose) Blackhawks on Wednesday. But the Hurricanes brought an edge and physicality that the Rangers did their best to match.
“We’re playing on our toes,” Strome said. “We’re learning how to become a team and win games, and how to handle all different types of adversity.”
As the Rangers of the 2010s can attest, the best way to overcome adversity is by terrific goaltending. Lundqvist did it for so long, and now the torch has been passed to Shesterkin. He made two stops on Justin Williams in front and then a slick glove save on a Nino Niederreiter tip, almost single-handedly killing off a first-period penalty to keep it scoreless and start the game on the right foot.
“Those are game-changers,” Quinn said.
The Rangers got a breakaway goal from Mika Zibanejad just over two minutes after the penalty expired to make it 1-0.
Brock McGinn tied the game at 3:25 of the second, but then two good bounces allowed Jesper Fast and Brady Skjei to score in the second for a 3-1 lead. Artemi Panarin scored his 31st of the season on a power play 1:10 into the third, but it was matched by a power-play goal from Sebastian Aho just over four minutes later — breaking a seven-game streak in which the Rangers had not given up a power-play goal.
But Strome ended it into the empty net late in the third, and that made this night all about the win. The players came off hooting and hollering, the moms were cheering and all the anxiety that comes with this time of year was pushed to the back burner.
Even Frank Abagnale Jr. would have been proud.