Rangers now face higher expectations after fabulous February

Rangers now face higher expectations after fabulous February

February did not make the Rangers shiver, for with every save Igor Shesterkin delivered, there was good news on the doorstep.

The franchise goaltender had a month, all right, going 7-0 with a 1.72 goals against average and a .953 save percentage for the Blueshirts, who became the first team to 40 victories while climbing into a share for first-overall with Wednesday’s double empty-net abetted 4-1 victory over the Jackets three days after having their 10-game winning streak ended in Columbus.

Every save has been necessary for the team that had a 10-1 month following a two-month stretch in which the Blueshirts couldn’t quite break even while going 11-12-2 over nearly a third of the season.

Every save was necessary in this one in which it was pretty difficult to identify which of the clubs was in first place and which was in 29th place.

Igor Shesterkin, who picked up the victory in the Rangers' 4-1 win over the Blue Jackets, had a 7-0 record in February.Igor Shesterkin, who picked up the victory in the Rangers’ 4-1 win over the Blue Jackets, had a 7-0 record in February. Robert Sabo for NY Post

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Shesterkin was not under siege but faced 10 high-danger chances, according Natural Stat Trick, as the Blueshirts were intermittently hemmed in for shifts at times late in the match attempting to hold a one-goal lead before the empty-netters.

The netminder yielded Columbus’ only goal at 3:24 of the third period after having to scramble back into the net after he went behind to move the puck. Shesterkin also was trapped out of the net after a mishap in the second period, but was able to make the stop.

So when the Russian was asked to evaluate the state of his game, the answer was on point.

“Very good in the net and very bad behind the net,” Shesterkin said. “I need to work on my stickhandling.”

The February schedule is history. It is in the past just as the trade deadline is in the near future, coming up on March 8. GM Chris Drury will have two more games — Saturday in Toronto and then Monday at home against the Panthers — in which to assess the personnel on hand and the requirements necessary to turn this wildly successful regular season (so far) into something far more meaningful in June.

“Definitely an accomplishment, but like I said, just continue to build our game,” Jacob Trouba said of the 40 victories and the club’s place in the standings. “There’s no real trophies handed out right now.

Artemi Panarin celebrates with teammates after scoring the first of his two goals in the Rangers' win.Artemi Panarin celebrates with teammates after scoring the first of his two goals in the Rangers’ win. Robert Sabo for NY Post

“So, that’s great, but who really cares?”

Anaheim GM Pat Verbeek was at the game while his team is hunkered down on the West Coast. Verbeek did not just walk in off the street to decide to watch a hockey game.

We know the Rangers have interest in Ducks’ right wing Frank Vatrano and center Adam Henrique. But it is unclear who exactly Verbeek was scouting unless it was Kaapo Kakko, and that doesn’t make sense to me unless we are talking about a blockbuster in which Trevor Zegras would be coming to Broadway, but there is not the slightest hint that kind of a deal would be on the table.

Kakko moved up to skate with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider while Jimmy Vesey flipped with the Finn and skated on the third unit with Jonny Brodzinski and Will Cuylle. I don’t think the switch makes a whole lot of sense unless there is something additional to be considered that is attached to the deadline. At this time of year, everything is viewed through that prism. Maybe the Rangers are showcasing Kakko, but again, that doesn’t make sense to me.

Drury needs to add, not play a zero-sum game. If you’re telling me it would be Kakko for both Vatrano and Henrique — and this is not a rumor or a report, just a muse — that would represent as all-in a deal as the Rangers could make.

Taking Kakko off the third line — on which he twinned with Cuylle to drive the net and establish a presence in front — leaves that unit without definition. The Rangers have been too top-heavy as it is.

Matt Rempe received a hero’s welcome and played a judicious game in his, ahem, career-high 7:42 of ice time. He banged bodies, credited with four hits, and launched a second-period drive on net from the right side that drew an ovation from the crowd. There was no call for the 21-year-old to fight and he did not.

Artemi Panarin scored twice, once into an empty net, and was scintillating. His line with Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere launched a sum of 10 shots on net off 19 attempts. There’s a first line that is producing for the Rangers, and it is that one.

There are 22 games to go and the Rangers are tied for first overall and have a seven-point divisional lead over Carolina. It’s more than anyone could have reasonably expected. Now expectations are elevated. Two games to go until the deadline.