Lightning Strikes for Fortunate, Playoff-Bound Rangers

NEW YORK – Just when it seemed like the New York Rangers’ playoff hopes had been thrashed, lightning struck to help the desperate Blueshirts back their way into the eighth and final seed in the NHL’s eastern conference.

With their collective backs to the wall, the Rangers responded with one of their finest team efforts of the year in their regular season finale at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon, as New York (44-33-5) scored the final four goals and got at least one point from 14 different players (five different Rangers scored with ten different skaters assisting) to rally past the New Jersey Devils, 5-2.

But, the Rangers still needed a seemingly unlikely home loss from the Carolina Hurricanes (40-31-11) to reach the playoffs after being upset in their previous game, at home, by the Atlanta Thrashers (the 11th-best team in the East) one night before Carolina won in Atlanta on Friday, 6-1.

Although New York head coach John Tortorella said after beating New Jersey that he “wouldn’t watch” Carolina’s Saturday evening game with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was confident that his former team could help out his current one.

“I have friends there and I know it’s going to be handled the right way,” said Tortorella (who coached Tampa Bay to its only Stanley Cup title in 2004) of the Lightning playing to win despite having nothing to play for, being locked into the fifth seed in the Eastern conference when it took the ice against Carolina, which needed to win to steal the eight seed from New York.

“That’s good for the league,” Tortorella added. “I hope it’s good for us.”

It was, as the Lightning beat the hot Hurricanes (8-1-1 entering that game), 6-2, to help the Rangers avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight year on the final day of the regular season (last year, New York lost a winner-take-all shootout in Philadelphia to miss out on getting the eight seed in the East).

Before that could happen however, the Rangers had to do their part, and they had to do so after digging a couple of early holes.

New Jersey (37-39-5) opened with three of the game’s first four shots, the third of which was deflected in front of the net off of the stick of right-winger Nick Palmieri, to beat Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvuist (26 shots, 24 saves) low and to Lundqvist’s left just 2:03 into the game, to give New Jersey an early 1-0 lead on Palmieri’s 9th goal of the season.

Just 1:11 later though, center Chris Drury, who made a surprise return after being out since February 3rd with a knee injury, made an immediate impact on his first shift, tying the game, 1-1, on his first goal of the season, curling the puck into the net as he was falling in front of the crease.

Erik Christensen and Mats Zuccarello (who was recalled from the AHL prior to the game in case his proven shootout skill was needed in the Rangers’ must-win situation) recorded assists on the play after Christensen’s shot was blocked.

It was all by design, according to Tortorella, who said, “Our whole game pan was not to overpass, just keep on shooting pucks, and look for rebounds.”

Although New York would fall behind once more, Drury’s goal seemed to give his team the emotional charge it needed after allowing four straight goals against the Thrashers and Devils.

Recognizing the importance of his own goal, Drury said, “You don’t want to give them a chance to get comfortable with the lead and build momentum off if it. Any time you give up a goal, you try to respond as fast as you can.”

Drury’s overall solid play on Saturday pleased Tortorella, who said, “I’m so happy for him. That is really good stuff.”

Left-winger Vinny Prospal, who led the Rangers with two points (one goal, one assist), added of Drury, “He plays his best when there’s a playoff on the line or in the playoffs, and he played great for us today. It [was] a huge lift. Our captain comes back for one of the biggest games of our season. We were down [1-0] and at the crucial time, you could see the building sink again, like the last game [against Atlanta].”

After that score, neither team had many scoring chances for more than 12 minutes, until the Rangers barely missed on a golden opportunity, followed by the Devils regaining the lead in the final minute of the period on a goal by left-winger Ilya Kovalchuck (1 goal, 1 assist), who assisted on Palmieri’s earlier goal.

With just under four minutes left in the opening period, New York left-winger Ruslan Fedotenko took a pass from behind the Devils’ goal and was all alone just outside the crease. But, Fedotenko tried unsuccessfully to juke goalie Martin Brodeur (29 shots, 24 saves) and was stopped.

A little over three minutes later, New Jersey, attacking in the New York zone, took advantage of center Derek Stepan losing his stick. That made it easy for the Devils to move the puck, eventually finding Kovalchuck on the left side, before he beat Lundqvist to put the Devils ahead, 2-1, on his 31st goal of the year, with 42 seconds left in the period, after assists by defensemen Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela.

Shots were even in each of the first two periods (7-7, in the first, and 12-12, in the second), but it was the Rangers who made the most of their chances in the second period, as they stormed back from their first-period deficit to outscore New Jersey 3-0 in the middle period and grab a 4-2 lead.

“I think an important part of the game was when [New Jersey] scored late [in the first period] to make it 2-1,” said Tortorella. “I don’t think we got rattled. [After that point], we played the way we needed to play and we found a way.”

New York had the first three shots of the second period, scoring on the last of those, as left-winger Wojtek Wolski scored his 12th goal of the season, streaking down the left side (after assists by defensemen Michael Sauer and Fedotenko, following a Devils’ turnover at mid-ice) before firing a great shot to sneak the puck through a narrow space between Brodeur and the post to his right, to tie the game, 2-2, just 1:52 into the second period.

In a relatively clean game (aside from a few brief shoving instances after the whistle), the game’s only penalties were finally called 5:53 into the second period as Rangers’ defenseman Dan Girardi went off for roughing with the Devils’ Vladimir Zharkov, who was whistled for slashing. However, neither team was able to generate a significant scoring chance with the ice opened up in a four-on-four scenario for the next two minutes.

Later in the period, New York, facing playoff desperation, finally got its first lead of the game from the unlikeliest of sources, as rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh (playing in his 40th NHL game) beat Brodeur with a wrist shot with 8:01 left in the period for his first career NHL goal, after taking a pass from behind the net. Prospal and right-winger Marion Gaborik assisted on the goal which put the Rangers ahead, 3-2.

New York added a final goal in the period as centers Brandon Dubinsky and Stepan assisted on left-winger Brandon Prust’s 13th goal of the season (again, off of a rebound), to extend the Rangers’ lead to 4-2 with 3:54 left in the second period.

From there, the Rangers coasted to remain the league’s only undefeated team (29-0) when leading after two periods this season.

Prospal (1 goal, 1 assist) closed the scoring in the final period, getting his 9th goal of the season with, with 9:11 left in the game, after assists by defenseman Artem Anisimov and Girardi.

Less than six minutes later, chants of “Let’s go Lightning!” erupted from the Garden crowd with 3½ minutes remaining.

While their fans were hopeful, Ranger players and Tortorella seemed to expect the worst, while questioning the NHL’s playoff tiebreaker format of awarding points for overtime losses and allowing a team with more non-shootout wins to earn a playoff spot over a team with more overall victories.

Lundqvist focused more on what he thought might have been a costly missed opportunity against Atlanta rather than on Tampa Bay possibly beating Carolina. “My hopes are not high… [but] I just hope it’s enough,” he said after beating New Jersey. “We’ve been playing pretty good, we’ve been winning a lot of games… [but] there are no easy games. [Atlanta] is still a pretty good team, [the Thrashers] just haven’t been consistent. That’s why they’re not in the playoffs.”

And, while Prospal praised his team’s play, his optimism was tempered by what appeared to be an expectation that Carolina would beat Tampa Bay.

“We played well as a hockey team,” he said. “It was not just one line, it was all lines… everybody contributed. It was like that all year long.”

But, Prospal added, “Forty-four wins, if somebody tells you that before the hockey season, you believe that will get you in the playoffs… we put ourselves in this position, so we have to deal with that somehow.”

“What is the shootout for?” a frustrated Prospal asked, rhetorically about the prospect of a 41-win Hurricanes team beating out the 44-win Rangers had Carolina beaten Tampa Bay. “How many wins [do] we have? How many [do] they have?”

Had the Hurricanes tied the Rangers, they would have held the first two tiebreakers – an edge in non-shootout wins, 35-34, or and advantage with two regulation wins over New York despite the Rangers’ two shootout wins over Carolina this season.

Along the same lines, Tortorella, after blasting the tiebreaker system and thinking Carolina might grab the eight seed in the East, was very defensive about anyone attacking the Rangers’ season as not being successful.

“I know what we’re doing here as far as our plan as an organization,” he said. “I’m not going to be talked into [believing this was a bad year], I’m not going to be talked at, I’m not going to listen to any [negatives] as far as what type of year this was if we don’t get in… too many good things have happened with this club and we are on the right road and we are doing it the right way… I’m going to defend this hockey team to the bitter end because too many things have happened here with this organization.”

To Tortorella’s point, New York finished tied for the sixth most wins in franchise history, and the Rangers entered Saturday’s contest with 10 wins in 15 games down the stretch, including big wins over three of the top four teams in the East – Philadelphia (twice), Boston (twice), and Pittsburgh and a road win over San Jose, the two seed in the West.

But, controlling their own playoff destiny late in March, New York went 2-3, including the loss to Atlanta and to two other non-playoff teams (Ottawa and the New York Islanders).

And, without Tampa Bay’s help, blowing a seven-point lead on Carolina with six games left would have been the worst collapse with that many games remaining in NHL history.

Ironically, the largest such collapse remains Carolina’s, when the Hurricanes blew a six-point lead with six games left and missed the playoffs three years ago.

So, as it turned out, Tortorella will have nothing to answer for immediately except for how he’ll prepare the Rangers to face the top-seeded Washington Capitals (48-23-11) in the first round of the Eastern conference playoffs.

With the Devils missing the playoff for the first time in 15 years, and the Islanders missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season, a Carolina win on Saturday night would have meant a spring without playoff hockey in the New York City area for the first time since 1966.

The stunning developments on Saturday also changed fortunes of some bad history for the Rangers in similar past situations. It was only the second time that New York made the playoffs with its postseason fate hanging in the balance on the final day of the regular season. The previous times New York faced what it did on Saturday were in 1959, 1970, 1988, and last year. Only in 1970 did that work out well for the Blueshirts, until Tampa Bay defeated Carolina.

While Tortorella doesn’t necessarily expect his team to be like the Philadelphia squad that knocked his team out last year en route to riding the eight seed in the East all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, he sees great value in the Rangers reaching the postseason.

“To get in, that’s part of growing for this team, getting experience in the playoffs,” he said. “Do I think this team is ready to run through four rounds and win a Stanley Cup? No, but you never know what happens. You watch what happened with Philly last year. I still think they were a different animal than we are right now as far as development of our club, but I hope we get the opportunity.”

Of course, by now, we know that the Rangers do get that chance. And, it’s one that Washington might have some concern over.

The Rangers beat the Capitals, 3-1, in the season series and that success includes wins in the past three meetings between the teams, two big shutout victories (6-0 and 7-0), and a pair of wins in Washington.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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