Rangers have positioned themselves as contenders this season

New York Rangers
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Whether or not the 2021-22 New York Rangers are actually one of the NHL’s best teams as currently constructed is probably still up for some level of debate. But one thing should be quite certain at this point in the season: They have definitely positioned themselves as contenders that has a chance to make a great deal of noise.

There are still a few “ifs” involved with that, of course, but the potential is absolutely there.

Even with their ugly loss to Colorado on Wednesday (a typical “schedule lose” with a No. 3 goalie making his NHL debut) they they still own the second-best points percentage in the league. If you assume it is going to take 96 points to qualify for an Eastern Conference playoff spot (the current baseline based on the standings, and a good benchmark for most seasons) they would only need to play .500 hockey over their remaining 57 games to reach that point. Keep in mind, the Rangers played at .551 pace over the prior two full seasons. So that should be an easily attainable goal.

They should — emphasis on should — have built themselves enough of a cushion in the East playoff race to be penciled in to one of those eight spots, even if they experience some kind of a regression in the second half.

That regression might still come, as there are some potential red flags here, at least as it relates to their 5-on-5 play. Their possession and scoring chance numbers at even-strength consistently place them among the bottom-10 (per Natural Stat Trick), which is not really where you want to reside. Good teams generate more shots and chances than their opponents, and that typically leads to scoring more goals and winning more games.

But there are some exceptions to that with the right circumstances. Specifically, if your team has elite talents and elite goaltending.

The Rangers have both.

For whatever flaws they still have, the Rangers have superstar level players in all of the right spots.

Artemi Panarin is one of the 10 best offensive players in the world and can drive a teams offense.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Rangers, Wild climb toward top]

While his goal scoring has been slow this season, Mika Zibanejad is a top-tier offensive player and is currently being crushed by an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage that is due for a rebound (he started slow here last year as well before going nuts in the second half).

On defense, Adam Fox is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and at age 23 is already one of the NHL’s top all-around defensemen. He also keeps getting better.

Then there is the most important piece of them all: Starting goalie Igor Shesterkin. If there is anybody that knows the value of an elite goalie and what they can do to mask flaws on a team, it is Rangers fans. After seeing Henrik Lundqvist do that for more than a decade, they have seamlessly transitioned into watching Shesterkin do the same so far in his young career. When healthy, he is a game-changer, a season-changer, and a potential franchise-changer. Since making his NHL debut the Rangers have a 39-19-5 record in games where Shesterkin is the deciding goalie, while his .926 save percentage during that stretch is third best in the league (trailing only Juuse Saros and Jack Campbell, while being tied with Andrei Vasilevskiy).

Every contending team needs those types of players at all levels of the roster. They are the most difficult to find and acquire. The Rangers already have them.

At some point they are going to need players like Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière to take significant steps forward, and that potential is still very much there.

But what really makes the Rangers an intriguing team right now is the fact they have the flexibility and resources to address their flaws.

They not only have the trade capital to be active players in the market in terms of young prospects, they also have more salary cap space this season than almost every other team in the league. They could, in theory, acquire just about any player they want that is available before the trade deadline. It is something they should aggressively pursue.

For starters, do not overvalue your own prospects. No matter how deep your prospect pool is (and the Rangers have one of the deepest prospect pools) not all of them are going to pan out. If they can get you another impact player that could strength your chances right now, it is worth looking into.

Especially in the Rangers’ situation. Panarin, Zibanejad, and Chris Krieder are not going to be top-line players forever. This is their chance, and this is the year the Rangers have the flexibility to go all in to help them. Next season a lot of that extra salary cap space disappears when new contracts for Zibanejad and Fox kick in with only Ryan Strome set to come off the books. It will not be a dire salary cap situation, but it will not be as advantageous as it is right now. Any rental that is potentially available (Tomas Hertl? Mark Giordano? Filip Forsberg?) should be on the table.

There was obvious pressure for the Rangers to be a playoff team this season, especially after the wholesale changes made within the front office and coaching staff during the offseason. Now that they look to be on path to be there, and have put themselves in a strong position in the standings and with the salary cap for this season, they should be looking to take another step beyond that and speed up the timeline even more.

You only get so many prime shots at something like this. You do not want to miss them when you get them.

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.


    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.


    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.


    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.