The Sabres gave the Rangers the puck, and the Blueshirts took it. The Sabres gave the Rangers time and space, and the Blueshirts took that, too. If you want to deduce that the Sabres gave the Rangers the game at the Garden on Sunday night, well, the Rangers took that, as well.
And so, after the 6-3 victory achieved against a team that allowed the Blueshirts to flaunt their skill without a heck of a lot of opposition, the Rangers have returned to the fringes of the playoff race, back to within four points of the Bruins for the final divisional invite after gaining four points on Boston within 48 hours.
The B’s, beaten by the Sabres on Friday and by the Penguins on Sunday afternoon, still hold two games in hand. They have nine to go, as opposed to seven for the Rangers, whose final two games are set to be played in Boston on May 6 and 8. The Bruins will still have two to play following that set, one at home against the Islanders before their finale in Washington.
So the Rangers in essence need to pick up at least four points on the Bruins over the next five games and then sweep Boston in regulation time. Owning the regulation wins tiebreak, that would clinch a playoff spot.
The Blueshirts have another at the Garden on Tuesday against the Sabres, then a pair against the Islanders in a home and home, before two at the Garden against the Capitals preceding the trip to Boston.
The Bruins have another in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, two at home against the Sabres and two in New Jersey — read that and weep — before the Rangers come to town.
There are other configurations for the Rangers, who could leave Boston with a one-point, two-point or three-point lead and then hope the Bruins don’t sweep their final two, but that would take the club’s fate out of its own destiny. Which is just the situation at this very moment.
“Obviously that means something to us to get the [Bruins] score before the game and have it be in your favor so you want to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Mika Zibanejad, who recorded his third hat trick of the season, all within the last 22 games. “I thought we did.
“The only thing we can control is trying to win [our] games, as cliché as it sounds, and see how far that takes us. That’s our mindset right now, just focus on the next game and move on from there.”
This was a game made for the Rangers, who strutted their stuff early. Kaapo Kakko scored a pair of goals, the first at 12:02 of the first period off a lovely feed from Adam Fox — kind of redundant, isn’t it? — to give his team a 2-1 lead that would never be surrendered after the Sabres had struck quickly to negate Zibanejad’s opening score.
Fox had three assists to increase his league leading totals among defensemen to 41 assists and 44 points. And Alexis Lafreniere flourished on the Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich unit, driving and creating throughout while looking like a whole new lad from the one who skated with Nos. 93 and 89 for nine games during Artemi Panarin’s leave of absence that bridged February and March.
“I just think he’s got a whole different approach over the last month or so,” head coach David Quinn said of the 19-year-old, first-overall draft selection. “I think his work ethic has become more NHL-like, through no fault of his.
“The last thing I would ever do is call this guy lazy. He works his [butt] off. But as I’ve said often, the biggest challenge for young players to learn is what an NHL work ethic is and what you’re going to have to do to have success at this level. For guys who have had success offensively, a lot of things they have done throughout their career, they’re going to have to alter a little bit.
“He learned that. This kid continues to put the effort in, he gives your team a jolt of incredible energy and optimism and he is playing with a big-time level of confidence, as he should be. We knew he was a special player and he’s certainly showing more and more of it as we move forward.”
At the same time, Chris Kreider’s appointment to the line with Kakko on the right and Filip Chytil in the middle has changed the dynamic of that line, which worked well below the hash marks and was probably the club’s second best.
So here we are. Two weeks to go and Slim has ridden back into town.