Ryan Lindgren injury overshadows Rangers’ great effort in win over Islanders

NEW YORK — As the New York Rangers have piled up the wins since the All-Star break — they’re now 15-3-1 since the start of February — they’ve been a curious team. They still have some of the most elite talent in the league and that talent is still performing at a high level, but the Rangers haven’t defended well.

Coming into Sunday’s game with the New York Islanders, the Rangers ranked 29th in the league in expected goals against at five-on-five in February and March. During December and January, when the Rangers had an 11-12-2 record, they ranked 16th in the league in xGA. It’s been the Igor Shesterkin and Jonathan Quick show, for the most part, during this terrific stretch.

But they were very good defensively on Sunday, even after suffering a potentially huge loss when Ryan Lindgren had to be helped off the ice in the second period following a collision with Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the Rangers end.

Lindgren is as tough as they come in this league and he’s usually able to recover, whether it’s a stick to the face or something more serious. He memorably returned from a high-ankle sprain in just eight days, coming back into the lineup when the Rangers were down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. He didn’t miss a game the rest of the way even though he was clearly compromised.

Perhaps he can recover from this nasty-looking leg injury. Peter Laviolette would only say Lindgren was “being evaluated” and there is just over a month until the playoffs begin. But for a defense corps already missing Jacob Trouba for at least another week, losing Lindgren would be a big blow.

If the Rangers can defend the way they did on Sunday, they can withstand the Lindgren loss for a while. The Rangers didn’t just defend in their own end — they were up the ice turning pucks over and rolling through shifts that didn’t see their end of the ice. They’ve been one of the worst teams defending the rush all season and gave up hardly anything in that area on Sunday; rather they stuck to Laviolette’s 1-3-1 structure better than they have for a while now, even using the tight neutral zone to turn the play back on the Isles when Lindgren sent Will Cuylle in for a second-period goal.

Laviolette made a tweak to his bottom six, swapping Jonny Brodzinski and Will Cuylle to create a matchup-checking line of Cuylle-Barclay Goodrow–Jimmy Vesey and a third line with Kaapo Kakko, Alex Wennberg and Brodzinski. That third line contributed two goals, one from Brodzinski on a deflection and one from Kakko on a strong play off the wall; both were crucial, with Brodzinski’s breaking a 2-2 tie and Kakko’s giving the Rangers a 4-2 lead in the third.

Chad Ruhwedel will almost surely make his Rangers debut on Tuesday against the Jets. Perhaps the need for a left-shot defenseman feels a bit stronger now with Lindgren’s potential absence, but the trade market yielded what it could on deadline day; Erik Gustafsson would move back to the left, presumably with Fox, while Zac Jones and Ruhwedel would form a third pair, at least until Trouba is ready to return.

The Rangers finished a gauntlet of six games in eight-plus days at 5-1-0. They are still buoyed by their goalie tandem — Shesterkin’s outing on Sunday put him at a .941 save percentage in 13 starts since his extended All-Star break and Quick isn’t too far behind at .919. Artemi Panarin is on a mission for his first 40-goal and 100-point season. Fox has quietly put together a resume that should still have him in the top five of Norris Trophy voting despite missing 10 games in November. Mika Zibanejad is starting to heat up, at even strength no less.

Now they may be down a key defenseman. They have handled everything thrown at them this season as they march toward a possible Metro Division title and a hoped-for lengthy playoff run. If they can defend the way they did on Sunday, better than they have at almost any time in the last six weeks, it’s hard to call them anything but a Stanley Cup contender.

(Photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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