NEW YORK -- The Rangers did everything they could Saturday afternoon to get themselves into the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- then got some help from the Tampa Bay Lightning a few hours later.
Chants of, "Let's go Lightning!" filled the air during the third period at Madison Square Garden, as the Rangers used four unanswered goals to beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2 and move into eighth place in the East.
The Rangers finished the season with 93 points -- a total that wound up being two more than the Carolina Hurricanes, who were beaten 6-2 at home by Tampa Bay when a win could have gived the 'Canes the final playoff berth. Instead of going home for the summer, the Rangers will play the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Some players said after their win that they wouldn't be able to bring themselves to watch the Lightning-Hurricanes tilt. Vinny Prospal, who spent six seasons with the Lightning, said he had no intention of texting Vinny Lecavalier to offer some words of encouragement.
Well, at least not at 3:30 p.m.
"I'll think about it," said Prospal, who scored his ninth goal of the season. "He's napping right now, so I'll let him sleep."
Prospal, however, said he would plop himself down on the couch and watch the game.
"I'm home by myself. My son has a hockey tournament somewhere in Massachusetts," Prospal said. "I'm going to go home, enjoy The Masters right now, then I'll be praying that my old team is going to beat Carolina."
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, whose first NHL goal in the second period was the game-winner, said the only thing he plans on doing is checking the score on his phone. Forward Brian Boyle, who set the tone during the first period with a series of bone-jarring hits, couldn't even bring himself to talk about potentially sitting through the gut-churning game.
Brandon Dubinsky had an assist on Brandon Prust's 13th goal of the season that capped a game-turning, three-goal second period. He said he'd force himself to watch Lightning-Hurricanes, but he couldn't promise that he'd have fun.
"I think I am more nervous to watch the game than play in this one," Dubinsky said. "It's just the nature of not having any control over the outcome. If we get in the playoffs, the way our team is, we will be a tough team to play."
After 20 minutes, it looked like there would be nothing riding on the Hurricanes winning or losing.
Nick Palmieiri got the Devils on the board just 2:03 into the game, deflecting an Ilya Kovalchuk shot through the legs of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The energy that had reached a fever pitch early in the game had gone out of the building as the Devils appeared primed to play the role of spoiler against their rivals.
That's when Rangers captain Chris Drury, playing his first game in more than two months after suffering a knee injury, showed why he's called Captain Clutch.
Drury slipped behind the Devils defense, chased down a loose puck and used a diving backhander to beat Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur to tie the score just 1:11 after Palmieri put the Devils on top.
"You don't want to give them a chance to get comfortable with the lead and build momentum off it," said Drury, who entered the contest with no goals in 23 games during an injury-riddled season. "Anytime you give up a goal, you try to respond the right way and as fast as you can."
But Kovalchuk sent the Devils into the first intermission up 2-1 on a beauty of a goal with 41.8 seconds remaining. He danced around two defenders and fired a wrister past Lundqvist's blocker from the left circle.
It seemed like a dagger of a goal at the time, but it did nothing to deter the Rangers.
"I think an important part of the game was when they scored late to make it 2-1," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I don't think we got rattled. We played the way we needed and found a way."
Wojtek Wolski, a healthy scratch a couple times in the last few weeks, pulled the Rangers into a 2-2 tie with his 12th goal of the season at 1:52 of the second period. The Devils were compromised by a bad line change, leading to a 3-on-1 that Wolski converted with a perfect shot to the stick side.
McDonagh put the Rangers ahead for good after sneaking down from the point and whipping a wrister that eluded Brodeur's catching glove with 8:01 remaining in the second period. It was the result of great work down low by Prospal and Marian Gaborik and the Devils failing to mark McDonagh when he joined the play.
"It made it sweeter that we got the win for sure," said McDonagh, who waited 40 games to get his first goal. "It was a good feeling. I have been thinking about it for a long time, when it was going to come."
Prust banged home a rebound of Dubinsky's shot to make it 4-2 with 3:54 remaining. It was just the 15th shot Brodeur had faced up to that point. Brodeur made 25 saves to fall to 23-26-3, guaranteeing the future Hall-of-Famer the first losing season of his career.
Lundqvist, making his 26th consecutive start, stopped 25 shots to close the season 11-4-1 in his last 16 games and finish 36-27-5 overall.
After showing toughness and grit while handling an increased workload with backup Martin Biron lost for the season, Lundqvist was squeamish when talking about the Lightning-Hurricanes game that will decide his season.
"I can't decide if I'm going to watch or not. It's going to be really painful probably," Lundqvist said. "Here you work so hard for so long, to miss (the playoffs) is going to hurt pretty badly."
Tortorella, who coached the Lightning for seven seasons, said no matter what happened in Raleigh, he's proud of the effort his team put forth through a season that saw just about every important player on the roster suffer some sort of significant injury.
"I think we have a plan," Tortorella said. "I like the youth that we have infused. The foundation, the guts of this team is our guys. I think we are only going to get better. I think we created an identity."
Tortorella said he wouldn't watch the game -- and he knows the Rangers had no one to blame but themselves for having to get help to make the playoffs.
"It is a little frustrating how this has played out," Tortorella said. "Our inconsistency has put us in this spot. It's frustrating when you end up with 44 wins and a team that may end up with 41 gets in and you don't.
"Anxious? Sure. Frustrating? Yeah. A little at both ends."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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