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Will the red-hot Rangers snatch a playoff spot this spring?

The Broadway Blueshirts are as hot as any team in the league, but they've been beating up on weak opponents. To survive a devastating final stretch of their schedule, they'll need to keep getting great goaltending from Alexandar Georgiev in relief of injured Igor Shesterkin.

When the New York Rangers announced on trade-deadline day that they’d re-signed left winger Chris Kreider to a seven-year, $45.5-million pact, the move was obviously not about the present. They were locking up the veteran leader of their forward group to keep a physical power forward in the lineup for years to come – and a well-liked voice to guide the next generation. Considering they also announced emerging star goaltender Igor Shesterkin would miss multiple weeks with a rib fracture sustained in a car accident, the Rangers clearly were in no position to prioritize a short-term playoff push.

But still having Kreider around is turning out to be a bonus, as it appears the Rangers are going to make a serious run at the post-season. After Thursday’s 5-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, the Broadway Blueshirts have won five consecutive games and nine of 10. They hold a 12-3-0 record since the all-star break. They lead the NHL in wins and points over that stretch, and only the Vegas Golden Knights boast a higher points percentage. The Rangers have climbed to within two points of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot and have two games in hand on the team they’re chasing, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

So can the Rangers pull of a stunning climb to a secure a post-season berth down the stretch? Predicting their fate is a matter of understanding why they’ve gotten so hot of late and looking at the remaining challenges on their schedule.

The first question to ask: have they been good or lucky during this incredible 15-game run?

To answer one or the other would be to oversimplify, as a team can be both, but the statistical indicators during this streak suggest the Rangers haven’t been quite as good as their record suggests. They have allowed more shot attempts at 5-on-5 than they’ve generated, producing the 22nd-best Corsi mark in the league since the all-star break. They’ve also allowed the fifth-most high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes. Because Shesterkin had been so dominant during this run, going 9-1-0 with a .940 SP, goaltending has masked some of the Rangers’ defensive deficiencies. They’ve posted the league’s third-best SP at 5-on-5 during their run and are a top-three team in PDO.

On the other hand, the Blueshirts have done an excellent job generating quality scoring chances during the 12-3-0 heater. They’re first in scoring chances per 60, second in shots on goal per 60 and 10th in high-danger attempts per 60. The Hart Trophy-caliber campaign from left winger Artemi Panarin has made this group much more dangerous offensively, and the Blueshirts have gotten tremendous help from breakout puck-moving blueliners Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox. Their power play hums along at 23 percent on the season, good for sixth in the NHL.

So while they still have work to do defensively, they have been a legitimately potent team offensively while getting stellar goaltending. They fill at least two pieces of the pie. They haven’t done it against boffo competition, however. Since the all-star break, they’ve beaten Detroit twice, Toronto, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Columbus, Chicago, Carolina, San Jose, the New York Islanders and Montreal. Nine of the Rangers’ past 12 wins have come against teams not currently occupying playoff positions. The top teams they faced over that span were Boston and Dallas, who beat them.

So this Ranger team, then, remains tough to figure out. It has real momentum right now but has also taken advantage of a relatively soft spot in the schedule. Tougher tests lie ahead. Of their remaining 19 games, 14 will come against teams occupying playoff spots, and 10 will come on the road. They play the past three Cup champs, the St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, a combined six times, while also drawing the Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning and, up next, a home-and-home versus the Philadelphia Flyers.

In the end, whether New York can complete the run might come down to goaltending. Shesterkin was otherworldly but is out indefinitely and will be re-evaluated in a couple weeks. That puts the pressure on Alexandar Georgiev and even Henrik Lundqvist to deliver. Georgiev has started both games since the injury, winning both and posting a .937 SP, and it’s extremely telling that he’s set to get the nod again Friday in a back-to-back after playing Thursday. Eventually, will the Rangers have to rely on Lundqvist, who turns 38 on Monday? Maybe, though they only play one more back-to-back this season, coming March 10 and 11.

So while the Rangers’ hot streak has been an exciting story in the second half, it’s not guaranteed to end in glory just yet. They’ll need the great run of goaltending to continue without Shesterkin if they want to successfully navigate an extremely tough finish to their schedule. But even the idea that the playoffs are within reach is gravy right now. Shesterkin and Fox are rookies. It’s year 1 of Panarin and Jacob Trouba. The Rangers’ arrow points up, with or without a 2020 playoff berth. This isn't anything close to a make-or-break year. This era is just beginning.

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