Rangers still not yet playing best hockey as second half beckons

The 60 minutes the Rangers played in taking out a pretty good Golden Knights team 4-1 at the Garden on Friday night served pretty much as a microcosm of the now completed pre-All-Star portion of the season. 

Because, other than recognizing the necessary stellar work provided by Jaro Halak in net, the Rangers weren’t all that impressive. They yielded a lot of chances. They never truly were in control. Their game was not quite buttoned down. That’s kind of the impression they have made through the opening 49 games. 

Maybe that’s not fair, for in a business in which results constitute the bottom line, the Rangers got the result in this one, and they have consistently gotten the results over the past 23 games, during which they have gone 16-4-3 since hitting rock bottom at 11-10-5 on Dec. 3. 

Maybe that’s not fair at all in describing a team that will head into the break eighth overall in points percentage in the NHL at .633 with a 27-14-8 overall mark. 

“When you go through something like we did the first couple months, everything gets nit-picked. It is not pleasant,” Chris Kreider, whose 20th goal gave the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead late in the first period, told The Post. “You focus every day on improving. You look inward. You learn about yourself and your teammates. 

“And you become stronger when you come through it. That is not just a cliché. We’re a better team now than we would have been without that adversity. That’s real.” 

Chris Kreider looks to pass during the Rangers' win over the Golden Knights on Jan. 27.
Chris Kreider looks to pass during the Rangers’ win over the Golden Knights on Jan. 27.

This was a scrambly one right from the get-go. Vegas generated a passel of Grade-A chances. Halak, who will go into the break on a five-game winning streak, through which he has a .937 save percentage and 1.81 goals against average, turned them all aside. 

(Yes, all of them, the one goal he surrendered to Phil Kessel early in the second period to slice the Blueshirts’ lead to 2-1 came on a ricochet off his body on a shot from below the goal line. Chalk that one up as a no-danger chance.) 

The fact is that Halak, who struggled during training camp and early in the season, is giving the Blueshirts their best backup goaltending since Alexandar Georgiev deep in the 2019-20 season, when he was kind of sharing the net with Igor Shesterkin. 

It was, in fact, a measure of faith from head coach Gerard Gallant (and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, who always has faith in his guys) to start the 37-year-old veteran with a nine-day break upcoming and Shesterkin apparently in good health. 

The Rangers apparently have a tandem. 

The Kreider-Vincent Trocheck-Barclay Goodrow unit played hungry hockey. They were aggressive in the zone, keeping it simple and getting to the net. Kreider got his goal when a Trocheck drive glanced off his leg. He did not get in the way the next time, when Trocheck buried a Goodrow centering feed for a 2-0 lead late in the first period. 

Gerard Gallant
Gerard Gallant’s Rangers still aren’t playing their best hockey.

That sample of hard-edged hockey, Kreider insisted, is representative of what the Rangers’ identity is, or can become. 

“I think when we do the right things, we’re a good team, and we’re doing them more often than not,” the wing said. “When we establish the forecheck, when we break the puck out cleanly, when we get puck support through the neutral zone, we’re difficult to beat.” 

The Artemi Panarin-Mika Zibanejad-Jimmy Vesey unit had multiple shifts in which the trio threatened, albeit without a goal. And the Kids were more than just energetic: Filip Chytil got his eighth goal in the past 11 games on a third try following two whiffs that gave the Rangers a 3-1 lead at 14:20 of the third. 

Will Cuylle made his Garden debut and was challenged by Keegan Kolesar, one of the league’s most noted enforcers, to drop the gloves off the second-period opening draw. That hardly seems to be within the code, but the Blueshirts’ 20-year-old rookie accepted the challenge in his second NHL match and did just fine in the bout. 

“Good for him,” Gallant said. “He got challenged by a tough guy. He showed up.” 

The Rangers are doing more than just showing up. They’re winning, even if not always piling up style points. That is not the point. 

The point is, the Blueshirts have the eighth-best record in hockey, The point is, they are seven points clear of a playoff spot. The point is, the Rangers haven’t yet played their best hockey. 

The second half beckons.

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