Gerard Gallant guides New York Rangers to NHL playoffs

Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant communicates with a referee during the first period of an NHL ...

While the Golden Knights are facing a long offseason after missing the NHL playoffs, their former coach has been making postseason plans for nearly a month.

Gerard Gallant and the New York Rangers surpassed expectations in his first season as coach, locking up a berth in the playoffs April 9 and finishing second in the Metropolitan Division.

They will face Pittsburgh in a best-of-seven, first-round series starting Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. The Stanley Cup playoffs open Monday with four games.

“We clinched a playoff spot it seems like a year ago, but it’s probably three weeks ago, and that was the big goal of ours,” Gallant said Sunday. “I think our team is ready. We’re in a good frame of mind. We’re pretty healthy for the most part and ready to go. It’s exciting, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Gallant led the Knights to the postseason in each of his first two seasons with the club, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, before he was fired Jan. 15, 2020.

The Rangers have been in rebuilding mode since 2018 and went through a front-office shake-up last year when Chris Drury was promoted to president and general manager. Gallant, fresh off leading Canada to gold at the world championship after an 0-3 start in the tournament, was hired in June to oversee a roster that featured a blend of skilled veterans and talented youngsters.

New York went 52-24-6 to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2016-17, excluding the 2020 qualifying round in the bubble. Its 110 points are the third-most in franchise history, behind the 2014-15 team (113 points) and the 1993-94 team (112 points) that won the Stanley Cup. The .671 points percentage was the fourth-best in franchise history.

“I like what we’ve done all year. We’re not scared to play anybody,” Gallant said. “We had a tough start to the season, but after that, I thought we were a team that really came together.”

Under Gallant, the Rangers had the No. 4 power play in the league at 25.2 percent with defenseman Adam Fox and poacher Chris Kreider (52 goals) leading the unit. Defensively, New York finished No. 2 in goals allowed per game.

Igor Shesterkin (36-13-4) is the heavy favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. He led the league with a 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, which was the third-best mark in league history among goalies to play at least 50 games in a season.

Shesterkin’s goals saved above expected (37.24) was the highest total in the past five seasons, according to Evolving Hockey.

The team also added toughness and grit, trading for former Knights winger Ryan Reaves (five goals, 18 points, 43 penalty minutes and minus-13 rating in 69 games) and signing forward Barclay Goodrow, who won two straight Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay.

Winger Artemi Panarin missed the final two games as a precaution with an upper-body injury, but practiced Sunday and is expected to return to his spot on the top line against the Penguins.

He led the Rangers with 96 points (22 goals, 74 assists) in 75 games.

Forward Andrew Copp also practiced Sunday and is expected to be available for the series.

“I’m happy the way the season has gone. I’m happy where we finished,” Gallant said. “And really, I think we can make a run. I don’t know if we’re going to, but I think we’ve got a chance as good as anybody else. I truly believe that.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.