It is tempting to say that Tuesday night’s showdown at the Coliseum against the Islanders represented the first meaningful post-deadline game of Alexandar Georgiev’s career.
The problem with that supposition is that every game is meaningful for a young goaltender attempting to establish himself in the NHL, as the undrafted 24-year-old has been ever since the moment he arrived just over two years ago as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup.
So whether it was sitting for weeks while the King got his requisite work, filling in much more regularly after the purges that marked the previous two trade deadlines, or confronting Igor Shesterkin’s promotion on Jan. 6 that surely seemed to threaten his spot on the roster, Georgiev has known nothing but big games.
Or, as No. 40 himself told The Post following his sterling 42-save performance in the Rangers’ thrilling 4-3 overtime victory after the Islanders had tied it at 19:42 of the third period, “Every day is a challenge in the NHL.”
Challenges have not only been accepted, but surmounted by Georgiev, spectacular in keeping the Blueshirts afloat throughout the match in which play was below the defensive-zone hash marks far too much of the time. This was nothing new, though, the netminder pulling the same act when the Rangers were last at the Coliseum in a 3-2 victory on Jan. 16.
But those two games do not constitute an island. Fact is, Georgiev has gone 5-3 with a .921 save percentage and 2.55 goals against average since Shesterkin’s recall created a crowd in nets. He has been spry, challenging and mentally strong.
“Obviously you want to be the guy to play,” Georgiev said. “I want to play a lot, but everyone does. I like the way I’m playing, but the way the guys are playing in front of me and the way our D has played, that’s been huge.
“I try and do my best every day at the rink, at practice or in the games. I know I have to be at my best if I want to play.”
The Rangers were mentally exhausted following Monday’s dramatic trade-deadline day on which Chris Kreider signed an extension, Jesper Fast was not dealt, news of Sunday night’s car crash in Brooklyn in which Shesterkin suffered a broken rib and Pavel Buchnevich was badly shaken circulated through the room, and the universally popular Brady Skjei was sent to Carolina.
They had no legs for this Battle of New York that in fact did represent the first meaningful post-deadline match for the Blueshirts since 2016-17. This was once routine for the Rangers. It’s not routine now.
“I’ve missed it,” said Marc Staal, who’d missed the playoffs only once in his first 10 years. “You got the feeling in Carolina [last Friday] of playing meaningful hockey, there was a difference in the energy. And now to have this and be in this race, it’s nothing to be taken for granted. It’s been awhile.”
The Rangers have won four straight, are 8-1-0 in their past nine, 11-3-0 in the past 14 and 15-6-0 since Shesterkin. They established a franchise record on Tuesday by winning their eighth straight road game. They are in 10th place, two points behind the ninth-place Candy Canes, four points behind the second wild-card Blue Jackets (with three games in hand!) and five points behind the first-wild card Islanders.
Let’s repeat: four points out of a playoff spot with three games in hand and 20 games to go in the season.
“It’s just fun to be a part of,” said Staal. “We’ve given ourselves an opportunity here. We’ve worked hard.”
There is still work to do. The Blueshirts have allowed 40 or more shots in five of their past eight games. They’ve won them all. The 2011-12 Black-and-Blueshirts could go into a defensive shell and withstand that type of onslaught almost by design, but this is not that group. That is not the game plan.
But the Rangers have the game-breaking talent to surmount nights like this. This wasn’t Artemi Panarin’s finest night, but the Russian Rocket ripped home the first goal through a sliver of space for his career-best 32nd, and made the one-on-three OT pass to set up Zibanejad for the dagger strike. Sometimes two plays can be enough.
Sometimes two plays can be enough when the goaltender is as steadfast as Georgiev, who should get the call in Montreal on Thursday and will carry the mantel as the club’s No. 1 for at least the short term.
“Alex has a certain confidence and competitive edge about him,” Staal said. “He’s quiet about it, he’s very unassuming, but you can see how he’s responded to this challenge. He wants to be the guy who’s on the ice.”