Shesterkin stifles Stars as Rangers win 8th in a row

NEW YORK – In analyzing his underwhelming point total this season, Kaapo Kakko offered this blunt assessment.

“I feel I’ve been passing too much sometimes,” the Rangers’ forward said last week. “I need to shoot more.”

Validation came in Tuesday’s 3-1 win over the Stars at Madison Square Garden.

Kakko ripped a top-shelf wrist shot into a tight window over Dallas goalie Scott Wedgewood’s right shoulder for his seventh goal of the season, four of which have come in the past nine games.

“I got a good chance right before that,” Kakko said. “(Jonny Brodzinski) passed it to me behind the net and I couldn’t see the puck, so I didn’t shoot when I got it. Then I got the chance again, and I thought it was a good lane. I tried to shoot.”

It turned out to the decisive tally in the Blueshirts’ victory over the first-place team in the Central Division, tying the 23-year-old’s career-high point streak at five games.

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With that production has come an obvious uptick in confidence. Kakko’s been buzzing around recently and was particularly noticeable Tuesday, whether that was protecting pucks in the offensive zone or tracking back hard on defense.

“This is the best he’s looked,” head coach Peter Laviolette said prior to the game. “To me, he’s moving his feet, he’s creating, he’s playing with some attitude and some edge out there. The line (with Jonny Brodzinski and Will Cuylle) has been good, but I think he’s a big part of driving that line. Since he’s been back from the (left-leg) injury, he just seems to be getting stronger and stronger inside of his game.”

Continuing to build on this streak will be critical in the Rangers’ effort to lengthen their lineup, especially after losing veteran right-winger Blake Wheeler for at least the rest of the regular season.

The next step for Laviolette is finding more ways to utilize Kakko, who was limited to a modest total of 12:21 time on ice Tuesday and hasn’t eclipsed 14:11 in a month.

“He had another strong game,” the coach said. “I gotta find a way to put him out there more. That’s on me, because he’s playing well right now. … The shot on the short side – most of the night we went glove, when we needed to go blocker. He went on the short side of that and the blocker and made a really nice goal. I do think that confidence plays into that. I see that. He’s looking confident on the ice. He’s demanding the puck, and when he has it, it’s hard to take it from him. He’s trying to find the areas to score goals and be effective.”

Avoiding an emotional letdown

Kakko isn’t the only one riding high lately.

The Rangers (37-16-3) have won a season-high eight straight − their longest streak since 2015-16 − and avoided falling into a trap coming off Sunday’s epic 6-5 overtime win against the Islanders in the NHL Stadium Series.

“It (would have been) easy for us after that emotional win to maybe have a little letdown with our energy here,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “But I thought we were on from the start.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 20: (L-R) Kaapo Kakko #24 and Erik Gustafsson #56 of the New York Rangers celebrate Kakko's second period goal against the Dallas Stars at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 2024 in New York City.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 20: (L-R) Kaapo Kakko #24 and Erik Gustafsson #56 of the New York Rangers celebrate Kakko’s second period goal against the Dallas Stars at Madison Square Garden on February 20, 2024 in New York City.

They rode that momentum right into the matchup with the Stars and came out flying.

They dished out 15 hits in the first period alone, including a few from giant rookies Adam Edström and Matt Rempe that riled up the MSG crowd. They were limited to 7:47 and 5:08 TOI, respectively, but made their presence felt when they were on the ice.

“Their minutes are not a reflection of them not playing well,” said Laviolette, who noted that a total of eight penalties between the two teams disrupted the line rotation. “They were noticeable. I’m happy with the way they played. They definitely bought a physical presence right off the bat. They get it on the forecheck, they put it behind you, and they’re coming – and they’re going to bang bodies.”

The Rangers also created dangerous scoring chances in that spirited first period.

As usual, the Artemi Panarin-Vincent Trocheck-Alexis Lafrenière line was at the center of a few of them − on their way to out-chancing the Stars by a 9-2 margin, according to Natural Stat Trick − and helped create the goal that provided an early 1-0 lead.

It was scored by Fox, who’s been catching fire with seven points (one goal and six assists) in his last three games, but wouldn’t have happened without Lafrenière battling in front to get Wedgewood out of position and Panarin sneaking around the backside of the net for the primary assist.

That score held until Kakko doubled the lead at the 8:23 mark in the second period, which was quickly followed by a power-play goal from Miro Heiskanen to cut Stars’ deficit to 2-1.

But that would be extent of the Dallas scoring.

“We’ve been winning in different ways,” Fox said. “This is the time where you see points are so crucial. You kind of start getting a playoff picture, and you see win eight straight, and teams are still right there with you. You can’t take your foot off the gas, and I think we recognize that.”

Igor Shesterkin finishes strong

The Rangers allowed 42 shots, but limited their opponent to nine high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five. And when they did need a big save from Igor Shesterkin, they got it.

“Our best guy was Shesty in net tonight,” Laviolette said. “He did everything that he needed to do to make sure we got the win.”

The 28-year-old goalie was under siege for long stretches Sunday against the Isles and had some shaky moments, particularly in the first period. He joked that the only two people who didn’t enjoy the memorable clash were him and opposing goalie Ilya Sorokin, with the two combining to allow 11 goals.

“I usually give up less goals in practice than in this game,” Shesterkin said with a smirk.

But he was on point Tuesday, finishing with 41 saves. That included a windmill glove save on Wyatt Johnston off the rush at the end of the second period and a few in the third while the Stars were making their push for the equalizer.

The most impressive came with 4:18 to play, when Tyler Seguin shook loose in front of the Rangers’ net and got off two point-blank shots from inside the crease. Shesterkin knocked down the first with his skate, then threw himself onto the ice and reached out his stick to stop the rebound attempt.

The home crowd showed their appreciation by serenading him with chants of “I-gor! I-gor!” after the puck was covered up.

“I just tried to play it until the end,” Shesterkin said. “If he went high it would have been a goal, but I was lucky tonight.”

There was more than luck involved in No. 31’s fourth consecutive win, which improved his overall record to 23-12-1.

Trocheck finished off the evening with an empty-netter for his 19th goal of the season, capping another encouraging night for the Rangers’ most important player.

“Everyone is on the same page right now,” Shesterkin said. “Just support each other, play for everyone and try to do your best.”

Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Postgame takeaways: Kakko, Shesterkin lead Rangers to 8th straight win