NEW YORK – Thursday night’s match wasn’t about today for the New York Rangers. It was about tomorrow.
It wasn’t pretty. But tomorrow, no one will care about pretty. Thursday’s game wasn’t about pretty or ugly. Short or tall. It was about moving forward. It was about moving towards tomorrow.
The Rangers had already clinched a playoff spot on Monday, so the only work left for them to accomplish was making sure they were clear of a Wild Card spot, which would have meant a tough first-round meeting with either the Bruins or Penguins.
“If you’ve played in the league long enough, you’ve been in 100 different situations; clinching early, clinching last, not in the playoffs, you have to be professional and you come to work every day,” said forward Brad Richards. “We were a little loose and slow early in the game, but we grabbed it and talked about it, and figured it out.”
Mission accomplished. Thursday night’s 2-1 win over the Sabres, coupled with the Flyers’ 4-2 loss in Tampa Bay ensured the Rangers (45-31-5) the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Metro Division playoffs, which means Games 1 and 2 at home, and, if necessary, Game 7 at the Garden in the first round.
The playoffs begin Wednesday, though Game 1 for the Rangers is likely to be Thursday, Apr. 17 due to a Knicks game the previous night.
“You want to finish as high in the standings as possible,” said Marc Staal, who won the Good Guy Award from the media earlier this week for cooperation with the press. “We knew if we lost this one, potentially we could have slipped into the wild card spot if we didn’t win our next one. It was a big two points for us against a team with not a lot to play for.”
“It’s different, mentality-wise,” said Benoit Pouliot, who scored the first Rangers goal late in the second period. “You don’t want to take a break or anything, but sometimes the other team wants to ruin your whole thing you got going on. Buffalo came out hard, they played well. For us, we just have to be a little bit more prepared mentally off the bat. After that, we took over the game and we were fine.”
It wasn’t easy for the Rangers. With the immediacy of their situation resolved earlier this week, the mentality is different now. Tonight’s game wasn’t a must-win, it was a want-to-win.
“In a game like tonight, I’m not going to dig too deep in my brain to try to figure it out,” said cerebral Rangers coach Alain Vigneault of his team’s uneven performance. “I’m going to take the two points and go home.”
It’s not about right now. It’s not about the two points they gained. It’s about who they’re going to face when the playoffs begin in six days. It’s about putting themselves in a better position to succeed when the lights shine brightest.
“[It’s] definitely not the same as a must-win game, but they’re must-win points,” said Richards. “Would have been pretty sad in here tonight if we didn’t get those two points. You gotta figure it out.”
The Rangers won their 45th game of the season, the seventh time in franchise history they’ve hit the mark, and the second time in the last three seasons.
The Rangers allowed two goals or fewer for the 48th time this season, and one goal or less for the 30th time. They’re 38-10-0 when allowing two or fewer, and 28-2-0 when allowing no more than one goal.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves) is 11-4-1 in his last 16 games with a 1.81 GAA, .939 sv%, and two shutouts.
INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM