When the New York Rangers lost at Boston two Sundays ago, their playoff hopes were all but lost. The deficit was big, the games were few and a road trip loomed.
But the bumbling Rangers got hot. They routed the New York Islanders at home and raced to a 4-0-1 start on the six-game trip that made believers again that a fifth straight trip to the playoffs was possible.
A loss at Buffalo on Tuesday night dashed the spirits again. New York, however, shook that off one day later and began its final three-game push with a 5-1 victory over the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs at home on Wednesday night.
All that is left on the Rangers' schedule is a home-and-home series with Philadelphia — a team in front of them that can be caught. A pair of wins guarantees the Rangers a spot in the post-season.
"It's fun to be here," said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 26 saves one night after being pulled from the game. "A couple of weeks ago I thought we were out, but we never gave up and we're back in the race. The whole season comes down to the last two games."
Early goals costly
Erik Christensen scored two of New York's three first-period goals that essentially put the game away. The Rangers stormed out and seemed to take away the will of the Maple Leafs — the last-place team in the Eastern Conference.
"If we can't at least match or be more aggressive than they are, more desperate, there is something wrong," Lundqvist said. "In the first period, we really showed what we're fighting for here. I don't think they were really ready for it."
Christensen gave New York the lead 21 seconds in, then combined with Vinny Prospal for goals 30 seconds apart.
Although the Rangers wouldn't have been eliminated with a loss to Toronto, their realistic prospects for the playoffs would have been all but dashed. But wins in their final two games would get them into the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
Lundqvist bounced back from being pulled from the loss Tuesday night, when he allowed three goals on 16 shots in less than two periods, and stopped 26 shots. Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf spoiled Lundqvist's bid for his 25th NHL shutout when he scored with 11:51 left.
Olli Jokinen bounced a shot in with 9:09 remaining, and Aaron Voros added a goal 1:44 later for the Rangers to make it 5-1. New York is 6-1-1 in its last eight.
The Rangers, ninth in the East, trail the Boston Bruins by one point, the No. 7 Philadelphia Flyers by two points, and the No. 6 Montreal Canadiens by three. Those teams have two games remaining, except for Boston, which will play three.
Home-and-home series looms
The Rangers and Flyers will conclude their seasons with a home-and-home series this weekend — beginning Friday night at New York.
"We wanted to make the Philly games count — and they do now," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "You don't have to look at the board anymore. It is in front of us now."
Toronto, which lost 2-0 to Philadelphia on Tuesday in its final home game, didn't appear to have any jump or interest during the one-sided first period.
"Some guys didn't play and didn't respond physically when we needed it," Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. "The Rangers were playing with the intensity you need to play with when you're on the outside looking in. They are clawing and doing everything to get in.
"They certainly didn't want to let a team like us take away their only hope."
Christensen got the Rangers rolling. Brandon Dubinsky fed a pass from behind the Toronto net out front to Christensen, who jammed the puck between the pads of Jonas Gustavsson.
New York kept the pressure on Gustavsson, who was the reason the Maple Leafs weren't blown out early. The Rangers built a 12-1 shots advantage and grabbed a 2-0 lead at 10:26 when Prospal followed up Jokinen's breakaway chance with a rebound goal.
Gustavsson stopped Jokinen, and the puck trickled near the left post toward Maple Leafs defenceman Francois Beauchemin, who made little effort to clear it. Prospal streaked down the middle and got to it — easily avoiding Beauchemin's halfhearted stick swipe — and knocked in his 20th goal.
Gustavsson slammed his stick on the net in anger, skated to the blue-line while the Rangers celebrated, and then stomped his skates on his return to the crease.
It would soon get worse. Just seconds after Prospal's goal, Christensen scored his eighth of the season on the following shot — giving the Rangers a 15-5 edge — at 10:56.