This was not last spring. A reasonably early regular-season game does not equate to a playoff match. The Rangers know that.
But that does not devalue the Blueshirts’ 5-3 victory over the Devils at the Rock on Saturday in the first installment of the Battle of the Hudson since New Jersey’s seven-game triumph over the Rangers that signaled the end of Gerard Gallant’s tenure behind the bench.
“I forget about last year,” Artemi Panarin, downcast after failing to score a goal in the first round, said after his two goals helped elevate his team to the best 15-game getaway in franchise history at 12-2-1. “My [motivation] for this season is the same as the season before.
“Except I did more work over the summer. That’s probably not because of me, the coach gave me a conditioning [program]. I disagree with him, but I still do it.”
This was not only the Blueshirts’ first match against the Devils, it was the club’s first authentic rivalry game over the five-plus weeks of the season. There are only 26 intra-divisional meetings on every team’s calendar. This week, the Blueshirts get a few more rivalry matches in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while getting the Bruins at home.
Each point is worth the same, but there is something to showing mettle in these types of games after a steady dose of western opponents. Teams build seasons. The Rangers are building a pretty darn good one.
“I think we’re a mature group,” said Jimmy Vesey, whose second goal of the match broke a 3-3 deadlock at 17:11 of the third period and stood up as the winner when Blake Wheeler subsequently put one in an empty net. “From top to bottom we have a solid team and believe in ourselves.
“We’re in any game and every game no matter what happens.”
Vesey is part of the fourth line with Barclay Goodrow in the middle and Tyler Pitlick on the right that did not see the ice in the third period of the club’s last game on Nov. 12 at the Garden against the Jackets. This night, though, the trio did heavy lifting and applied more pressure against the Devils than any line other than the Panarin-Vincent Trocheck-Alexis Lafreniere unit.
“They were really good tonight,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “They found themselves in the offensive zone, generating, and were heavy in the battles.
“That’s what you want from them.”
The Rangers played without Adam Fox and Filip Chytil while the Devils were missing Nico Hischier and Timo Meier. Jack Hughes made his return after a five-game absence, scored a goal (of course he did) and launched eight shots on 14 attempts. He was everywhere seemingly all at once.
But so was Panarin, whose two goals extended his season-opening point-scoring streak to 15 games (11 goals, 16 assists, 27 points). Wayne Gretzky was the last Blueshirt to construct a 15-game streak back in 99’s first season on Broadway in 1996-97. And it was Panarin who lifted this team to Saturday’s triumph after nemesis Erik Haula swept one in from the crease to give the Devils a 3-2 lead at 1:16 of the third period.
“It’s awesome to watch every night,” said Igor Shesterkin, who became more resolute as the game evolved after a 16-day absence from game action. “He helps us be better every day. Everyone tries to reach him.”
Shesterkin allowed one to leak from Hughes midway through the first. The netminder got a large piece of Ondrej Palat’s drive on its way in late in the period. But Shesterkin clamped down in the third period, stopping Tyler Toffoli in alone just a minute after Haula had given New Jersey the lead and then stoning Jesper Bratt one-on-one before Vesey got the winner.
“Every minute that went by, he looked better, and that’s to be expected,” Laviolette said of his goaltender. “We needed him. He really stepped up.”
The Rangers stepped up. They won again (10-0-1 in 11 since their last regulation defeat to Nashville exactly one month ago) despite getting little of five-on-five value from the Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad connection. They are structured. They are detail-oriented.
And they are being elevated by Panarin, who is playing his best hockey in five years as a Ranger.
“I don’t like to say too much,” No. 10 told The Post. “For a beginning of season, yes, I think I have a good month.
“But it is a long year. What I will say is if I play like this the whole year, it’s probably going to be a pretty good one.”