3 reasons for Rangers optimism ahead of crucial Game 5 vs. Panthers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Listen, if you follow the New York Rangers closely, you’re pretty well aware of what’s ailing them heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

The Rangers spend far too much time pinned in their own zone defending against a relentless ground game deployed by the Panthers. They’re being badly out-attempted, out-chanced and out-shot. And they look somewhat beaten down the past two games on the road in South Florida.

Add to those broader topics that Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad have no points in the series and Artemi Panarin has not scored a goal and only recorded eight shots on goal in the first four games.

Then there’s the penalty kill that has allowed five goals in the series, including two goals in each of the past two games.

Got it. It’s a pretty extensive list.

But there’s plenty for the Rangers to feel optimistic about heading home for a crucial Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. Not the least of which is that the series is tied 2-2, all while they’ve taken Florida’s best shots, literally and figuratively, over and over.

Now it’s a best-of-3 series with two games on home ice, something the Rangers secured by winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the NHL this season.

These teams are incredibly evenly-matched. So, a bounce here or there. You know the deal with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And each is just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Related: How Chris Kreider avoided Game Misconduct in Game 4 vs. Panthers

3 reasons Rangers can be optimistic before Game 5 against Panthers

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Rangers. Here’s why:

3. Game 4 loss could be valuable lesson moving forward

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way first. Of course it would’ve been better for the Rangers if they had found a way to win Game 4 on Tuesday. Doing so would’ve given them a commanding 3-1 series lead and could’ve broken the Panthers spirit. Seriously, how would it feel to lose three straight games in overtime, including two when you tilted the ice in your favor for most of the game?

That it didn’t happen can still be OK for the Rangers if they take important lessons from the 3-2 overtime loss. Notably, they can’t keep playing the majority of the game in their own end and expect Igor Shesterkin to steal another victory from the jaws of defeat. You can be lulled into a theme of “We’re the Rangers. We’re the comeback kings. We always find a way in the end, thanks in large part to Igor.”

That’s all well and good but you need to be more proactive in making good results come about.

Hearing Kreider and Zibanejad be self critical after the loss is a good sign, too. Maybe whatever is ailing the BFFs will be chased away now. The Rangers are 2-2 in this series with zero production from either top-line forward. Imagine when the goals start to come, as it almost did for Zibanejad in the first period Tuesday.

The Game 4 loss just may have woken these two up, which would be another great benefit moving forward. Simply, Kreider and Zibanejad know they’ve “got to do a a better job.”

2. Now THAT looks like the Rangers power play again

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers finally broke through Tuesday and scored their first power-play goal of the series. And it was a beauty. Puck zipping quickly from stick to stick. A sweet Panarin feed to Vincent Trocheck in the bumper spot. And a bar-down tracer of a shot.

After starting the series 0-for-8 on the power play and in a 1-for-18 funk since Game 3 of the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Rangers finally looked more like the team that blitzed the Hurricanes in the first two games of that series after doing the same against the Washington Capitals in the first round.

The Rangers looked really good on their second power-play opportunity in Game 4, too. They finished 1-for-3 on the night. But the signs are there that their elite-level power play is back. And that could really alter what happens moving forward in this series.

1. Have we mentioned Igor Shesterkin yet?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s the single most important New York Rangers player. The one who has been their best player in the Eastern Conference Final (apologies to Barclay Goodrow, Alexis Lafreniere and Trocheck, of course). The reason why this series is tied instead of, say, 3-1 in Florida’s favor.

Igor Shesterkin.

Even in losing Game 4, Shesterkin left his mark on the game. He made 37 saves, including on all 13 shots in the third period when the Rangers were largely being run out of the building but still were able to tie the game 2-2.

He has saved 131 of 140 shots in four games, three of which were decided in overtime, twice in New York’s favor. That’s a .936 save percentage under some incredible pressure and adversity. No disrespect to Sergei Bobrovsky, but Shesterkin is the best goalie in this series. And it’s fair to say the best all-around player along with Florida captain Sasha Barkov, who’s been incredible in every facet of the series so far for the Panthers.

In fact, if the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP was give out today (yes, still a long ways to go in this postseason), Shesterkin is right there at the top of the conversation. His .925 save percentage is second among all goalies that have played at least 10 games, behind only Boston Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman (.933). His 2.37 goals-against average is fourth.

Bottom line, he gives the Rangers confidence because time and again he comes through in the most critical moments, always giving the Blueshirts a good chance to win.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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