Rangers' return to playoffs right on schedule for Jacob Trouba

Rangers’ return to playoffs right on schedule for Jacob Trouba

When Jacob Trouba was traded to the Rangers from Winnipeg in the summer of 2019, the hard part of the organization’s rebuild was behind it. The teardown part of the process had more or less been completed and, as new team president John Davidson liked to say, “the build ” had begun.

That spring, the team had traded for Adam Fox’s rights from Carolina and signed him. Then they traded for Trouba, a pending free agent, and signed him. Later that summer, they signed unrestricted free agent Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $ 81.5 million contract, and the Rangers were well on their way back to Stanley Cup playoff contention.

On Saturday, they clinched their first playoff berth in five years with a 5-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators. And on Tuesday night, they face off against Carolina at Madison Square Garden as the teams battle for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

“I’d say it’s pretty much the timeline I expected, ” Trouba said after practice Monday. “I think the [COVID-19] pandemic threw everything off a little bit, just to make things a little different. But it’s been a continual build here. I think culture, everything, kind of throughout the room, throughout the organization, has been on the ‘up.’ And I think we’re ready for this as a team, as a group, as a whole organization. This is where we wanted to get back to, and we’re here. Now it’s time for the players to step up and play and make some noise. ”

The victory over Ottawa lifted the Rangers’ record to 47-20-6, and got them to 100 points on the season for the first time since 2016-17 – the last time the team qualified for the playoffs. Carolina enters Tuesday night’s game with a 47-18-8 record and 102 points.

First-year coach Gerard Gallant conceded that while he believed all along the Rangers would contend for a playoff spot, he didn’t expect the team would be battling for a division title this late in the season.

“I knew we had a decent team, ” Gallant said Monday. “Coming in. . . I set our goals, and I thought we were going to be battling for a playoff spot. But now, did we play a little better after the first 15 or 20 games than I thought we were? Yeah. We started to play better. But I started to know our players, know our team, and. . . it doesn’t surprise me now. But if you would have said that at the [start of the season], I would have said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ ”

Goaltender Igor Shesterkin was magnificent in the early part of the season, keeping the Rangers in games and allowing them the time to find ways to win, even when they hadn’t played well. But at some point, Gallant said, the team started to play better defensively, and the team started to jell. Beginning with the shootout victory over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on New Year’s Eve, the Rangers went 28-12-2 over the next 42 games. They have gone 11-3-1 over the last 15, and 7-1-1 over the last nine, entering Tuesday night.

“I think we’re playing better defensive hockey overall,” Gallant said. “We’re playing smarter games with the puck, managing the puck better. It’s simple things. . . It’s just better puck management and giving up [fewer] Grade-A chances. And that’s really important. ”

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