It was all too fitting. The Rangers again in a hostile environment taken to a shootout versus the hated Flyers. Considering what was at stake in Game 79 with Carolina playing Buffalo later, it was easy to flashback to Game 82 a year ago when mere mortal Brian Boucher outdid Henrik Lundqvist in the skill competition, getting his team in the playoffs and soon on a run that didn't end until Game Six of the Stanley Cup to Hawk hero Patrick Kane.
Would the same cruel fate happen again? Luckily, Olli Jokinen wasn't available for Sunday's critical 3-2 shootout triumph that allowed Lundqvist and his Ranger teammates to breathe easier. Most importantly, thanks to Erik Christensen and Wojtek Wolski, who each beat Sergei Bobrovsky in the first two rounds, the Rangers had their revenge- gaining the valuable extra point that puts them at 89 entering another huge match tonight when Boston visits MSG. Coupled with the Sabres' 3-2 overtime win over Carolina, the Rangers are eighth two points clear of the Hurricanes, who also have three games remaining. Both teams have 33 wins in regulation/overtime. However, the Canes own the season series, which becomes the second breaker if they wind up tied at season's conclusion.
Here's the deal. Win tonight and the Blueshirts put immense pressure on Carolina, who will then trail by four. Do it in regulation/OT and they'll also lead the Hurricanes by one under the new format, which would make it even more daunting. Thanks to rookie Marc-Andre Gragnani's first NHL goal that caromed off two Canes past Cam Ward, it prevented Carolina from staying only a point back while keeping the seventh Sabres a point up on us. Well, technically two due to more reg/OT wins.
For John Tortorella's resilient club who erased the lifeless performance in Long Island with a more familiar gritty style that's made them rootable, they can't concern themselves with what the Canadiens, Sabres and Hurricanes do. The focus must be about taking care of business, which includes tough Northeast division winner Boston later on Versus at 7:30 ET. A game that should be no picnic with the Bruins still vying for higher position in the East, trailing the Flyers and Capitals by four with an extra game being played today. The Bruins are difficult anyway with Vezina frontrunner Tim Thomas, former Norris winner Zdeno Chara, power forward Milan Lucic and a bevy of smart forwards who get in on the forecheck and can strike quickly.
Figure it to play out similarly to Lundqvist's league high 11th shutout on March 26 in Beantown. The Rangers could be without goalscorer Ruslan Fedotenko, who only played five minutes in the third after getting banged up. If the undervalued key addition can't go, Whale call up Kris Newbury will replace him, likely on the fourth line with shootout aces Christensen and Wolski. Sean Avery, who only played five minutes, would see more shifts playing with Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle.
The Rangers matched their team record set in '93-94 by recording their 24th road win. They finish the 2010-11 regular season 24-16-1 (24-17), hoping it's not the final time they play away from The Garden. Now, they get the last three at home in a place that hasn't been as easy. Entering tonight, they're 18-16-4 on home ice. In other words, a losing record (18-20). In what's going to be a chaotic week, nothing can be assumed. Even if Carolina gets the Red Wings Wednesday before finishing with Atlanta and Tampa Bay, the goal is simple. Hold serve with the Garden Faithful throwing all their support to get this hard working team in the playoffs. With the basketball tenant, the Knicks clinching their first postseason since '03-04, there's even more scrutiny.
The Rangers have the Bruins, Thrashers Thursday and the Hudson rival Devils Saturday, who you know would love nothing better than to end their season. Here's a noble suggestion. Win the first two to not put themselves in an unenviable position.
Nobody ever said it would be easy. Not with a young roster that's been carried down the stretch by Lundqvist, who will make his record 24th consecutive start. They'll need the same level of sacrifice and commitment to get it done from Staal, Girardi, McDonagh, Sauer, Callahan, Dubinsky, Boyle, Prust, Anisimov and even Prospal who's shown so much coming back from a knee that could end his career. Even Gaborik got the uniform dirty yesterday, coming hard on the backcheck to break up scoring chances. If only No.10 would remember his main duty and score a couple over this do or die stretch.
It's time for the boys to stand up and fight for their right at home. Go all Beastie Boys and defend their turf. Do so and they're back in the postseason for a fifth time in six years since the lockout. Do it not and it will be a long offseason. It's up to them.