Tony DeAngelo was sitting with his teammates in the Rangers' dressing room on Thursday night, 20 minutes still left to play, having visions of a hat trick.
"I said in between periods, I've never had a hat trick before, even in junior," DeAngelo said with a smile on his face. "Probably the last time was when I was young kid."
To be clear: That wasn't DeAngelo hoping for a hat trick - two periods were in the books at Madison Square Garden and DeAngelo already had the trick in his pocket, and no matter what was to transpire over the final 20 he had already authored one of the special nights of his young career, and one of the special offensive performances that any Ranger defenseman has ever had.
By the time DeAngelo and his mates reached the room with a two-goal edge at second intermission, the 24-year-old blueliner had points on all five of the Blueshirts' goals to that point, scoring three of them himself, all leading the way to a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils - a win that was backstopped by a monster night from Igor Shesterkin, the rookie goaltender who was born some 67 days after DeAngelo and was making just the second start of his NHL career.
DeAngelo is the Rangers' leading scorer among defensemen with 36 points this season, fifth among NHL blueliners - never before in his NHL career, though, had he had more than two points in a game. On Thursday night, he became the first Rangers defenseman not named Brian Leetch to have five.
When asked about his blueliner's special evening, David Quinn replied, "Well, he's had a pretty special season in a lot of ways. Obviously he's got a unique skill set: His vision is uncanny, he's as good a passer as I've been around, and he just had it all going tonight. There are certain games where the puck finds its way in the back of the net, and every play you make ends up being a goal. And he had that night tonight.
"I can't say enough good things about him in every aspect," Quinn continued. "He's a true pro right now."
If anyone would know the feeling of that every-play-you-make kind of game, it would have to be Artemi Panarin, who added to his own ballooning numbers in his first season on Broadway. The Rangers' leading scorer had a goal and two assists on Thursday night to become just the fourth Ranger in history to string together three straight home games with three points or more. He has 60 points now, the most anyone has ever posted in their first 43 games as a Ranger.
But the Blueshirts actually have won four home games in a row now, and Chris Kreider has scored in all of them - he did so in this one when a set icing play that is an old favorite in the Rangers' playbook worked to absolute perfection between DeAngelo and Kreider, for a second-period strike that gave the Rangers their first two-goal margin of the night, and gave Kreider his 300th NHL point.
Kevin Rooney scored for New Jersey, while a pair from Blake Coleman came after Kreider's goal and tied the score in the middle frame. But DeAngelo scored twice more after Coleman to chase Mackenzie Blackwood (20 saves on 25 shots) from the Devils' net before Jesper Fast put the game to bed by finishing a 2-on-1 against Louis Domingue.
Down at the other end, Shesterkin, just two days removed from his NHL debut, faced 49 shots in game no. 2 - the one big number on the scoresheet that the Rangers weren't overly fond of. But as he did on Tuesday night against Colorado, the NHL's highest-scoring team, he answered the bell in every way on Thursday, this time turning away 46 shots on a night when he said the nerves from his NHL debut had calmed considerably.
The 24-year-old was beaten only by one rebound, one tip, and one video review. He stopped all 18 shots he saw in the third period, and punctuated his night with a save on P.K. Subban's full-windup blast, followed by a catching-glove snare of Jesper Boqvist's put-back try to preserve the Rangers' two-goal cushion, just two minutes before Fast settled it.
"It's special," Ryan Strome, who set up Fast's capper, said of watching Shesterkin these past two games. "When he sees the puck, he stops it. I think every goal he's let in so far has been kind of a fluky one. He's real confident in there -- looks like he's been doing it for a lot of years.
"Madison Square Garden, the bright lights -- it's not as easy for a goalie, a ton of pressure and the whole crowd chanting your name and stuff like that. He's just done a great job."
"He was really good," Quinn said, "and we needed him to be."
He is now 2-0 in the NHL, and his second win moved the Rangers to 9-1-1 in New Jersey's last 11 visits to Broadway. It also made the Rangers 8-1 in their last nine games against the Metropolitan Division this season, and their schedule is becoming heavier with those: After a trip to St. Louis on Saturday, the Rangers return to New York for four division games leading into the All-Star break, three of them against the Islanders.
There is some question as to whether Ryan Lindgren will be able to play in those: Two days after a precautionary move to hold the rookie defenseman out for the final 40 minutes against the Avs because of an upper-body injury, the Rangers saw Lindgren go down to a blocked shot early in this one, and he is considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
In his absence, Brendan Smith moved back to the blue line to provide some defensive work, while his fellow defenseman DeAngelo provided the bulk of the offense, with three of his career-high seven shots on goal finding their way through traffic from the Rangers' forwards. He set up Panarin from behind the goal line to open the scoring with what Strome called "an all-world pass"; then in the second, that set icing play, which almost produced a goal between himself and Kreider back on Dec. 12 in San Jose, could not have gone any better this time, Kreider bolting down the rink onto DeAngelo's 150-foot drive behind the defensemen, then in a flash tucking a backhander around Blackwood.
"He's got a ton of confidence, and he's not afraid to make plays," Strome said of DeAngelo, whose hat trick was the ninth in Rangers history by a defenseman. "He's got the things you can't teach a defenseman -- he sees the ice like no one else."
The Rangers have scored 21 goals in their last four home games, and have not lost on Garden ice since before Christmas. They have the Cup champs up next on Saturday in St. Louis; after that, the Islanders come calling to begin a home-and-home.
"We've got a good thing going," Strome said on Thursday, "and we've got to keep this rolling."