NEW YORK — The New York Rangers pointed to Gerard Gallant’s success as a head coach when he was hired last June to take over a team that was struggling to develop an identity during a three-year rebuilding effort.
The veteran coach previously led Florida to the Atlantic Division title in 2016, Vegas to the Pacific Division title and the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season in 2018, and guided Canada from an 0-3 start to the gold medal at the world championships last year.
Gallant has come through with a steadying influence in his first season in New York, leading the Rangers to a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and their first playoff appearance in five years other than the qualifying round in 2020. New York faces the Pittsburgh Penguins starting Tuesday.
“I knew it was a talented team, I knew it was a young team,” Gallant said. “We just wanted to take a step. I didn’t know if we’re going to finish in first place or we’re going to finish battling for a playoff spot. Obviously things went real well for our team this year and we’re in a good spot right now. A long way to go hopefully, but keep grinding away.”
The Rangers finished with 52 wins, matching the 1993-94 Stanley Cup-winning team for the second-most in franchise history — just one behind the 2014-15 squad. That’s a remarkable turnaround from the 27-23-6 mark in the shortened season under former coach David Quinn a year ago.
“As a coach you never come in here and say ’50 wins will mean a great season for us,’” Gallant said. “You just take it one game at a time and that’s how we do things, but it’s huge, it’s great to see. … It’s been a real good year and a lot of fun.”
In the 2020 bubble, the Rangers were swept by Carolina in three games in the qualifying round. Now, they will have home-ice advantage against Pittsburgh when the first round opens next week.
“It’s what we set out to do,” forward Chris Kreider said of making the playoffs. “Now that we did that we got to continue to build and get ready for the stretch here, the real season.”
The Rangers have been successful this season with scoring balance, timely goals, strong defensive play up and down the lineup, and some great goaltending.
Kreider is having an MVP-caliber season with 52 goals — tied for the second-highest single-season total in franchise history and a team-record 26 on the power play — and 25 assists. Artemi Panarin has 96 points, including 74 assists — the third-most in team history — and Mika Zibanejad (81 points) and Adam Fox (74) give the Rangers four players with at least 70 points for just the fourth time. The last time came during their last Cup-winning season in 1993-94.
The Rangers’ 2.49 goals allowed per game is second only to Metropolitan Division-winning Carolina. They are fourth on the power play and seventh in penalty-killing. And goalie Igor Shesterkin leads the league with a 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save-percentage, and is sixth in wins (36).
The emphasis on defense this season has the forwards more involved on that side of the puck as well.
“I don’t think it’s been harped on specifically, I think (Gallant’s) got a specific way of what he wants us to do and it’s pretty standard,” forward Ryan Strome said. “It’s nothing crazy, it’s simplicity and buying in. It’s never a perfect game but I think we know what it takes and what he expects from us.”
Asked to compare his success with the Rangers to that of the expansion Golden Knights in their first season when he won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach, Gallant is quick to deflect any credit.
“I had good teams,” he said. “When you work with good teams and good players it makes you feel pretty good about it. It’s not about me or my coaches, it’s about the players you put out on the ice, and I think it’s been real fun so far and a lot of fun with our group, a good team ready to take off.”