SAN JOSE, Calif. — Here was the affirmation of the adage that it is not as important who is out as who is in the lineup.
For though Alexis Lafreniere joined Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves and Julien Gauthier on the NHL’s COVID restricted list after learning of his positive test after participating in the morning skate, the Rangers got goaltender Igor Shesterkin back after his three-game stretch within protocol.
And Shesterkin, who had not had a full practice since Jan. 6, was brilliant in his return, making 37 saves for his third shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Sharks on Thursday night, which leveled the Rangers’ record at 2-2 on their current trip, which will conclude Saturday in Philadelphia.
Though not at their best, the Rangers played with far more purpose than they had in Monday’s 3-1 loss in Los Angeles and even in Saturday’s 4-1 victory in Anaheim. They committed too many turnovers — Artemi Panarin was still way, way off his game, forcing plays when none were there, in his second contest after missing four while stricken with COVID — and yielded too much, but they played with the fiber that has been a staple for much of the year.
Chris Kreider scored the first shorthanded goal of his career to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the first period before 20-year-old Braden Schneider added one from the slot early in the third period for a 2-0 lead to mark an impressive NHL debut. Kreider’s empty-netter sealed it in the final minute.
Acting coach Kris Knoblauch, upon instructions from head coach Gerard Gallant (also on the COVID list), moved Filip Chytil into Lafreniere’s projected spot with the Panarin and Ryan Strome connection. This represented Chytil’s third straight match on the right, the first two of which he played with Greg McKegg on the left and Kevin Rooney in the middle.
Anthony Greco, the 28-year-old whom the Rangers signed as a free agent before last season, got the call to slip in beside McKegg and Rooney. The Queens native, whose father, FDNY firefighter Paul Greco of Squad 270, died nearly two years ago from myriad illnesses he contracted breathing toxic air as a first responder to the World Trade Center on 9/11, had played one previous NHL game. That came with the Panthers on Dec. 13, 2018, when he racked up a minus-three in 9:30 of ice time.
The Blueshirts kept both the Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko connection and the fourth line Packmates — Morgan Barron between Tim Gettinger and Jonny Brodzinski — intact. Some of the reasoning could be found in Knoblauch’s comments on the pressure felt by young players getting a taste of the NHL.
“It’s a difficult situation because [they] are here for just a short time and they feel that when they do get their opportunity, they don’t want to make a mistake because when you make a mistake that’s a reason for the coach to take you out,” the acting coach said. “When a player gets called up from Hartford it might be their only chance, so they put a lot of pressure on themselves and keeping their game so simple because they don’t want to make that mistake.
“But then they also get into that position where they can’t help the team by making a play. It’s a fine line and a balancing act for those players. You try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. But I think more importantly it’s about their situation with their linemates and teammates.
“For instance, I think Morgan has been playing very well and I think that has something to do with him playing on that Hartford Wolf Pack line where you know, sometimes there’s the pressure of, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get him the puck,’ or, ‘Was that my job or not?’ ” Knoblauch said. “These three are just skating, talking and communicating on the ice and just playing hockey as if they were in Hartford.”
The Blueshirts were hardly perfect through the first period and indeed turned the puck over too often while generating too little, but they played with purpose. They emerged with a 1-0 lead on the first shorthanded goal of Kreider’s career while Shesterkin was as spry, quick and technically proficient as ever.
Kreider, named to the Metropolitan Division All-Star squad, gave the Rangers the 1-0 edge at 10:25 of the period by burying Zibanejad’s gorgeous royal road feed at the left doorstep off a two-on-one rush that began with a faceoff victory at the other end.
The Blueshirts protected the lead through a much more frantic and chippy second period in which Shesterkin was called on repeatedly, no more so than when he stood up and denied Andrew Cogliano on a breakaway up the middle with 8:50 to go.