Playoffs They Come

NEW YORK – The New York Rangers are in the playoffs. The Blueshirts qualified for the postseason on the penultimate gameday by defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. The team will conclude the regular season at Philadelphia Sunday before starting the playoffs as either a 7 or 8 seed in Washington or Boston, respectively.

“Congratulations to the players,” said head coach John Tortorella in the postgame press conference. “They have fought through it the past couple of months here, [through] ups and downs, lots of things going on around the team-but they found a way. They set themselves up to win one more home game to get in and they got it accomplished.”

The Rangers did all their scoring in the first period, drawing first blood after only eight seconds of play on a contentious goal that probably should have been called off. Markus Naslund stole the puck in the Flyers zone and, after passing to Ryan Callahan via Chris Drury, rushed the net where he would up jamming it past Philadelphia goaltender Martin Biron. After reviewing the play, the officials let the goal stand, presumably because there was no hard evidence that Biron had covered the puck before Naslund struck it.

The early goal was exactly what the Garden crowd ordered. Even before the puck dropped the noise was comparable, if not louder, than it had been at nearly any point this season, including Adam Graves night.

Fired on by the crowd, the Rangers doubled their lead at 12:06 of the opening period. Callahan got his 22nd goal of the season, tipping in a Derek Morris slap shot from the blue line. “Mo shot from the point, I tried to get a stick on it and was lucky enough to,” Callahan said about the goal. “That was really big to get two quick ones. It kinda calmed us down a bit.”

The Rangers clearly owned the first period and could have led by three or even four goals. But Morris picked up a tripping penalty late in the period and New York was forced to start the second with a man disadvantage. The Flyers dominated the powerplay and, though they did not get a goal, clearly took control of the tempo of the game. Daniel Briere’s powerplay goal at 9:14 was the logical consequence. The Rangers had clearly lost steam and were pinned in to their end most of the period. Only in the final minutes did they appear to get back on their feet.

The catalyst was once more Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers All Star goalie, who simply got better as the game wore on. The Swedish backstop faced 38 shots on the night, saving all but one. The most spectacular-a glove save from point blank range-came at 4:28 of the final period, when the Blueshirts were struggling to hang in the game. “I don’t know if it was the turning point,” Lundqvist said when the idea was suggested to him afterwards. “As a goalie, when it’s a 2-1 game, it’s fun because every save can be the difference…I did my job and here we are.”

The final minutes were tense and the Rangers also got lucky, with the post and crossbar sparing the team the equalizing goal. New York also had to face another shorthanded situation, when Markus Naslund was called for interfering with Biron, but managed to kill the penalty. In the final two minutes, the Rangers forecheckers did their job superbly, keeping Philadelphia from advancing past neutral ice and preventing John Stevens from pulling his goaltender for an extra skater. The final minute was pure bedlam; the Garden crowd on its feet, Rangers players throwing themselves into shots.

“We fought it for a little bit there. We were under siege for awhile,” said Tortorella. “But we just kept on fighting and tried to figure out some way to get through the game and win it.”

Mission accomplished. After firing Tom Renney Feb. 23, the team has gone 11-7-2 under Tortorella. Would the Rangers have made the playoffs with Renney? “Who knows? That’s one of those questions you’ll never know,” said Scott Gomez.

Notes: By a unanamous vote, Renney was named this year’s Good Guy for his cooperation with the media, as voted on by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, while Henrik Lundqvist was named team MVP.

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