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• Game Notes
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
After 80 regular season games, the Rangers find themselves still on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but they have a golden opportunity to crack the top eight in the final weekend of play.
Tonight, the ninth-place Rangers will host the eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden, and on Sunday afternoon the roles will be reversed with Philly playing host to the Blueshirts in the final game of the season. The simple math states that the Rangers will earn a fifth consecutive post-season berth in the playoffs should they win both games with at least one of the two wins coming in regulation time.
There are other ways the Rangers could make it into the playoffs, scenarios that involve the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. But to the Rangers, their goal is to win both games against the Flyers this weekend and not look for any outside help.
“I think the guys have worked hard and stayed together the past little while to get this opportunity,” said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. “Having said that, that’s all we’ve earned is an opportunity for these games to stand. We’re going to approach it as we’ve been approaching these games the last while, just trying to get up another hill. And I hope the guys have some fun with it. They have earned that.”
The Rangers have set themselves up in this position with a strong run down the stretch of the season. Wednesday’s 5-1 thrashing of the Toronto Maple Leafs at MSG pushed the Blueshirts’ record to 6-1-1 in the last eight games, with 13 of a possible 16 points secured along the way.
It is a race to the wire few could have predicted after the team’s demoralizing 2-1 defeat up in Boston back on March 21.
“Just yesterday I was leaving the rink and thinking this is unbelievable how we’ve come together as a team,” said rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto. “Everyone kind of counted us out there, and, basically, we had to win every game afterwards. Just how we’ve rose to the challenge is awesome. We’ve probably played our best hockey of the year these last eight games.”
Although proud of the fact that they have set themselves up with a chance to knock on playoff’s door, the Rangers are fully aware that the task is not complete until they kick that door in and earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We haven’t accomplished anything,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has started the last 15 games in a row. “We just put ourselves in a position where we have a chance to do something.”
Over the last eight games, the Rangers have been able to win in all different kinds of ways. They blew out the Maple Leafs on Wednesday and the Tampa Bay Lightning last Friday. They rallied in the final minute and then beat the Devils in a shootout on March 25. They put together a four-goal third period to rally past the Panthers last Saturday.
Along with winning in different fashion, the hallmark of the Rangers’ recent surge has been the contributions coming from the entire lineup. A different hero has emerged every night. And unsung heroes like Brandon Prust, Artem Anisimov, Aaron Voros, and Jody Shelley have stepped to the fore to play leading roles for the Blueshirts.
“I think the team challenged itself and that’s why they’ve gotten to be where they want to be here,” said Tortorella. “That’s where I think we’ve grown as a team, not only for right now, but even as far as the future as we continue to try and build a team.”
Of course, the Flyers will have a say in what happens this weekend, as well. Unlike the Rangers, Philly has the safety net of actually being in a playoff spot heading into these last two crucial contests.
However, where the Rangers have surged down the stretch, the Flyers have stumbled. Philly is just 3-6-1 in its last 10 games, though they have won back-to-back matches.
“They’re a good team,” said Tortorella. “We need to respect them, but we need to go out and play them, too.”
The Flyers could very well receive a big boost with the possible return of their leading goal-scorer, Jeff Carter, to the lineup. Carter has been out since fracturing his foot on March 21, but he practiced on Thursday and could very well play this evening.
Carter leads the Flyers with 33 goals this season.
“They have a lot of depth and all of their lines can score goals,” said Del Zotto. “Their biggest weakness is all of their injuries. Playing the Flyers, with the rivalry we have and all the things that have gone on on the ice this year, makes the game that much bigger. It’s going to be a fun game, that’s for sure.”
And, for the Rangers, it’s just that: one game. Their concentration is solely on this evening’s contest. If they win, then their focus shifts to Sunday’s match, but not a second before.
“We want to have that energy and intensity, but we need to be a little relaxed, too,” said Lundqvist. “It’s important to just go out and enjoy it and see it as a great challenge for us. We’re down to two (games), but we need to break it down to one.”
That first one is tonight, on home ice, in front of The Garden Faithful.
It doesn’t get much better than this.
|J. van Riemsdyk||77||15||20||35||-1||30||4||6|
|M. Del Zotto||79||9||28||37||-20||32||4||1|