The Rangers' path to the playoffs was clear before Game 82 of the season, the likelihood it would pan out was cloudy at best.
Yet, one year after New York was sent home with a shootout loss at Philadelphia on the final day of the regular season, the Rangers took care of their business and then got help they never could have counted on.
A surreal scene played out at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, beginning with the surprise return of captain Chris Drury to the New York lineup. He scored his first goal of the season during his first shift and provided a lift that led to a 5-2 comeback victory over the New Jersey Devils.
That, coupled with the Carolina Hurricanes' 6-2 home loss Saturday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning — who had nothing to play for — put the Rangers into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and into a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Washington Capitals.
Ryan McDonagh netted the first of his NHL career during a three-goal second period and the Rangers coasted from there against the Devils, who are playing out the string in a rare non-playoff season.
The Race is over
|7. x - Sabres||0||96|
|8. x - Rangers||0||93|
x = clinched playoff spot
The Rangers earned a win they needed in front of an excited, yet nervous crowd that will see the team play again this season. New York's final game ended about four hours before the Lightning saved the season.
"We did what we had to do. We played a great game. We got the points," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said.
The Rangers earned their 44th win to take a two-point lead over Carolina, which entered Saturday with 40 wins. New York's problem was only 35 wins came not via the shootout. A tiebreaker instituted this season eliminates shootout victories from a team's total.
"It is frustrating when you end up with 44 wins, and a team that may end up with 41 gets in and you don't," Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
But it didn't happen.
Once the game was in hand, fans began chanting "Let's Go Lightning," hoping to get the necessary help from the Lightning, the club Tortorella coached to the Stanley Cup title in 2004.
With the season on the line, Drury returned to the lineup for the first time in two months and scored right away. Drury had been out since Feb. 3 because of a knee injury that required surgery, missing the previous 27 games. He tied it 1-1 at 3:14.
"No matter who scored, scoring quickly after they went up 1-0 was a big thing," Drury said.
New York, which held a 29-26 edge in shots, also trailed 2-1, but tied it when Wojtek Wolski scored the first of the Rangers' second-period goals 1:52 in. McDonagh, the rookie defenceman playing in his 40th NHL game, put the Rangers in front at 11:59, and Brandon Prust pushed the lead to 4-2 with 3:54 left.
The Rangers remain the only NHL team not to lose a game this season when leading after two periods (29-0).
Vinny Prospal made it 5-2 with 9:11 to go, bringing more derisive chants of "Maaar-ty" in the direction of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.
Nick Palmieri and an energized Ilya Kovalchuk staked the Devils to a pair of first-period leads. New Jersey hoped to salvage something out of its disappointing season, that resulted in the team's first playoff absence since 1996, but couldn't knock out the rival Rangers.
"We're going to go home regardless of this," Brodeur said. "This is disappointing for our fans. It's something I am sure they would love for us to do."
Never since the Devils franchise relocated to New Jersey in 1982 have the New York metropolitan area's three teams — Rangers, Islanders, Devils — all missed the playoffs in a season.
Brodeur said he had no rooting interest between the Rangers and Hurricanes, who have knocked the Devils out of the playoffs in two of the previous five seasons.
"I don't like both teams. That's honest," he said with a laugh. "Carolina has been hard for us in the playoffs, and well, the Rangers are the Rangers, so it doesn't really matter."
New York fell into this precarious playoff position by losing 3-0 at home on Thursday to Atlanta. The Rangers went 11-4-1 in their final 16 games, but three losses were to non-playoff teams.
Palmieri gave the Devils a 1-0 lead 2:03 into the game when he deflected in Kovalchuk's drive. Kovalchuk turned a dominating shift into his 31st of the season with 41.8 seconds remaining in the first.
In between, Drury got the Rangers on the board when he came out of the right-wing corner and knocked the puck past Brodeur while diving in front. It had been a lost season for the 34-year-old centre, who had played only 23 games because of a twice-broken finger and the knee injury that knocked him out in February.
Drury replaced Sean Avery in the lineup against New Jersey.
The Rangers took a 2-1 lead when Wolski finished a 2-on-1 break with a shot that deflected in off the stick of diving defenceman Henrik Tallinder. McDonagh pushed the Rangers ahead when he took a pass from behind the net from Prospal and scored from the dot in the right circle. A pair of bad Devils line changes enabled the Rangers to score and grab the momentum.
Prust made it a two-goal lead when he came off the bench and put in a rebound of Brandon Dubinsky's shot.
"When we were in the game, the enthusiasm of the players, the excitement, the drive was there," Brodeur said. "Whenever they scored that fourth goal, it seemed that we just kind of quit a little bit."