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The compulsories are over, the Rangers sweeping their final six against the Sabres and Devils within the last two weeks to finish 12-3-1 against the downtrodden divisional foes off of Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over a Buffalo team that put up more than a fair fight.
But it is on to the feature part of the program, a home-and-home commencing at the Garden on Thursday against the Islanders, who perhaps are now the team for the Blueshirts to target in this late, mad rush for the playoffs.
For while the Bruins remain directly in front of the Rangers, four points up with two games in hand, the Islanders are just five points up on the Blueshirts while having just one game in hand. And the Islanders, 1-0 losers to Washington on Tuesday, are 0-2-1 in their last three, 2-4-1 in their past seven.
And this rather mammoth installment of the Battle of New York will present David Quinn with perhaps the most critical personnel decision of his three-year tenure behind the bench. For it will be on the head coach — with substantial input from goaltending coach Benoit Allaire — to decide whether to let it ride with franchise No. 1 Igor Shesterkin or turn to Islander-slayer Alex Georgiev.
Shesterkin was the Rangers’ best player in Tuesday’s victory, providing the needed support through the first period in which Buffalo stormed the net from the get-go while establishing a 16-6 advantage in shots but could not break through. The netminder was equally proficient the rest of the way while his team steadily turned the match its way in firing 35 shots on Buffalo neophyte Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen over the final 40 minutes.
The 25-year-old has started 15 of the last 19 to establish both his durability and his ability to carry a playoff contender, going 9-4-2 with a .922 save percentage and 2.51 GAA. He has been exactly as advertised for years.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been too difficult of a stretch,” Shesterkin said via interpreter Nick Bobrov. “When you play more and when you play a lot, you grow more confident, you get more trust, you help the team win, the guys block a lot of shots in front of you and that’s always helpful.
“We played a very smart hockey game defensively and offensively and the result is as it should have been. We’re giving ourselves chances to fight for the playoffs.”
Alrighty then. So it would seem automatic for Quinn to lean on his No. 1 for this showdown. Except there is this: Shesterkin has never beaten the Islanders, going 0-3-1 with an .878 save percentage and 3.75 GAA, all this year, including the 6-1 trouncing at the Coliseum on April 20.
Meanwhile, Georgiev is a lifetime 7-2 with a .944 save percentage and 1.70 GAA against the Islanders that includes 2-0 this year in which No. 40 has recorded one shutout and has allowed one goal on 55 shots.
This is going to be as difficult as they come for Quinn, who has the ultimate call here. Second-guessing will likely abound if the Rangers lose, regardless of the choice. The only way the coach wins is if his team does.
But at least there is a critical decision to make. After last Thursday’s defeat to the Flyers, the Blueshirts seemed out of it. But no. Three straight victories for the good guys. Two defeats by the Bruins. Three losses — all to the Caps — by the Islanders.
The Rangers roused themselves after the dozy first period. Brendan Smith — Unsung Hero by any other name — blasted one through for a 1-0 lead at 2:22 of the second period and after the Sabres tied in on Sam Reinhart’s power-play goal at 19:56 of the period, the Blueshirts raised the ante in the third.
Alexis Lafreniere, looking every bit like a first-overall draft selection, sent a lower left circle, one-time bullet from his knees off a beauty pass from Ryan Strome for the 2-1 lead at 9:49 of the third. Mika Zibanejad scored a power-play goal off an audacious no-look, backhand feed from Chris Kreider to extend it to 3-1 at 13:49.
“We got better as the game went on,” said Strome, who won a puck battle with Henri Jokiharju below the goal line before setting up Lafreniere. “I was really proud of our effort. I thought we banded together in the third.
“At this time of the year, these wins are huge. It really doesn’t matter how you get them.”
The Rangers have taken care of the compulsories. Now, the challenge. Now, the decision.
Giacomin or Villemure?
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