BOSTON — There are five months and a full three-quarters of the season to go, if that makes sense, but the Rangers improved to 13-4-3 the day after Thanksgiving, looking for all the world like a team that is to be taken seriously.
Do you know why? Because they have developed into a resourceful team that keeps its poise when things go awry, even for large chunks at a time, and they have become a team that knows how to win games.
The secret, as divulged by head coach Gerard Gallant following the Rangers’ 5-2 empty-net abetted victory Friday over the formidable Bruins, after a first-period in which his team had been outshot 17-3 for the first 19:53:
“Our goaltender,” Gallant said with a chuckle.
Igor Shesterkin, the party of the first part, was outstanding yet again, propping up the Blueshirts through the opening period, which ended 1-1, you bet it did, when Ryan Strome converted Artemi Panarin’s neat relay at 19:54. Shesterkin’s overall save percentage is .933. You bet that elite goaltending has been a large part of it.
But there’s more to it. The team’s structure may buckle, but it rarely falls apart entirely. There is belief within the unit that the Rangers will think of something while Shesterkin keeps it close. There is a relentlessness to the Blueshirts’ game. They are not perfect, and they may slump, but there is a whole lot of tenacity within this group and that has generally been a staple since Gallant stepped behind the bench.
Here is this, too, which should not be forgotten: The Blueshirts have matched the franchise’s third-best 20-game start in 50 seasons — the 2016-17 and 1972-73 teams also had 29 points at this juncture, while the 2015-16 and 1971-72 squads compiled 32 points through 20 contests — even though their most feared goal-scorer, Mika Zibanejad, has been blanked for nine straight games and has a sum of four goals (two at five-on-five) on the season.
There is some depth here, even though at first, second and third glance, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in listing a lack of depth up front as the Rangers’ greatest weakness. But the guys who have been plugged into significant roles have responded magnificently. Yes, we are talking about you, Julien Gauthier and Dryden Hunt.
Of course, there are no small roles on a Gallant team. So far, there have been no small players attempting to fill them.
“I think it’s everyone buying in,” Strome, who had a dandy game that included a sweet cross-ice feed that preceded Gauthier’s nifty setup on Panarin’s 3-2 tie-breaker at 11:35 of the third period, said of the team’s ability to take on water without sinking. “I think it’s guys realizing that every shift is not going to be an offensive shift and if you get the puck over the blue line you’ve got to change and live for another day and let the next line do their job.
“I think we’ve done a great job of sticking to our structure and trusting each other. There were shifts in that [first] period where we really didn’t touch the puck much but it was a tie game.”
Hunt, originally pegged as a fourth-liner, now has a spot on the unit with Strome and Panarin, who had scored in only one of the previous nine contests. Gauthier, a healthy scratch multiple times, now has a spot on the third line with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chtyil.
It was Hunt who went to the net to bang home a rebound off a Ryan Lindgren blast to knot the score for a second time at 2-2 at 12:33 of the second period after Patrice Bergeron had given the B’s their second lead of the game at 6:51 when left alone in front off coverage confusion following a clean defensive-zone faceoff loss.
The Rangers may not have enough recognizable top-six or top-nine forwards, and surely general manager Chris Drury is on the lookout for one or two, but all of a sudden, almost, they have pumped in 22 goals at five-on-five over their past seven games, including four in this one.
Strome described Hunt as a, “dog-on-the-bone type player.” The Rangers, with just enough finesse left in their game to thrive, are becoming that kind of team while sitting at — again — 13-4-3.
“I would say it’s a good feeling but I also think it’s a group that’s not satisfied,” Strome said. “I think we’re starting to feel like a winning team. I think we’ve got a different feel to our team.
“The important thing for us is continue to build. It’s so easy in this league to get complacent where things can turn on a dime for you. But Turk [Gallant] keeps up pretty honest, pushes us to the end of the game night in and night out. It’s going to take that until the end of the year.”
Five months to go.