NEW YORK -- With their season on the brink, the New York Rangers delivered a pristine performance and raised their playoff chances from dismal to doable.
Erik Christensen scored 21 seconds into the game, his first of two goals Wednesday, to set the tone and lead the Rangers to a convincing and much-needed 5-1 victory at Madison Square Garden against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who looked every bit like the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
The victory moves the Rangers to within one point of the eighth-place Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand. Just as important, the Rangers are two points behind the seventh-place Flyers, and the two teams will close the season with a home-and-home series against each other starting Friday at MSG and concluding Sunday at Wachovia Center.
Simply put, the Rangers don't need help from anyone.
"We wanted to make the Philly games count. And they do know," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "It's within us. But we don't have to look at the board anymore, because it's right in front of us.
If the Rangers win their final two games (at least one in regulation), they will reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth straight year. Should the Bruins lose their final three games in regulation and the Rangers get one point in their final two games, that would also result in a playoff berth for New York.
The Rangers can still finish as high as sixth if they win out (at least one in regulation) and the Montreal Canadiens lose their last two games in regulation.
"We can't worry about anyone else. It's up to us," said Vinny Prospal, who scored what turned out to be the winner goal during the Rangers' three-goal first period that basically decided the game. "We made sure we had a lot of energy and emotion. The first line had a great first shift where they scored on the first shot, and that makes a huge difference."
You could almost hear the will of the Maple Leafs shatter after Christensen's second goal of the first period at 10:56 put the Rangers ahead 3-0. He took a soft feed from Marian Gaborik and skated in alone on Jonas Gustavsson, who was helpless to stop Christensen's backhander along the ice.
It was a big game from an unlikely hero, something that has become a theme during the Rangers' late-season push to the playoffs. The fourth line of Brandon Prust-Artem Anisimov-Aaron Voros has been the best line on a lot of nights.
But Christensen gave the Rangers a genuine -- and much-needed -- threat on the top line with Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.
"I find that if I contribute early on it just sort of sparks you and the adrenaline starts flowing," said Christensen, who left the game late in third period after a hit by Leafs defenseman Francois Beauchemin knocked the wind out of him.
"He was huge," Dubinsky, who had two assists, said of Christensen. "He's been putting a lot of pressure on himself lately to find a way to put the puck in the net. A lot of guys have been telling him just relax, it's going to happen, it's going to come, and tonight he got rewarded with all the work he's been putting in leading up to this."
After a scoreless second period, defenseman Dion Phaneuf blasted a shot from the blue line past a screened Henrik Lundqvist to cut the lead to 3-1 with 11:51 remaining.
The goal was Phaneuf's first in 25 games with Toronto.
But Olli Jokinen, who played one of his best games as a Ranger, pushed the lead to 4-1 just 2:42 later. A shot by Gaborik was blocked, but it came right to Jokinen, who overpowered Gustavsson has he scrambled to get into position after the original shot changed directions.
Voros swooped off the bench and beat Gustavsson less than two minutes after Jokinen's goal to salt it away.
Gustavsson was treated like a wet pair of pants and hung out to dry all night. The five goals he allowed on 32 shots were mainly the result of very little help from his defense, who appeared to have little interest in being in the right position, especially during the first period.
"That was as bad a first period as we played all season, simply put," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said.
Lundqvist stopped 26 shots to earn his 34th win of the season. He bounced back extremely well after being yanked during the second period of Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Sabres in Buffalo.
Now it all comes down to two games with the Flyers.
"It's going to be intense," Dubinsky said. "We are going to be ready to go. We are going to focus on our game here on Friday at home, going with the same game plan as we did tonight and find a way to get the job done there and look forward to Sunday."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter at: @DLozoNHL
Wrist shot -
1 - 0 NYR
Wrist shot -
2 - 0 NYR
Backhand shot -
3 - 0 NYR