He hit the release valve for a group that has been clawing for this day for nearly a month.
In the second of three games in which the Rangers could lock up a playoff berth, New York squandered a 2-0 lead, scored late in the third to tie it, then leaned on its captain for the clincher in a 4-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"Excitement, joy, relief," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "We're proud. We've been working hard to get in. There's a lot of good teams now. It's not easy to make the playoffs. We should be really proud of how we came together, especially the last three or four weeks."
On April 1, the Rangers were 16-15-3, clinging to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and the six teams positioned ninth through 14th were within four points. New York responded with a 9-3-1 run.
"There's a sense of relief that we're in," Brad Richards said. "The position we've been in the last few weeks, it's been on our minds every day. You just want to get in. The best time of the year is the playoffs. It's a big relief from all the ups and downs we've had this season."
There were plenty of ups and downs Thursday night. The Rangers scored twice in the first period, getting one from Derek Stepan 3:29 into the game, and another from Derick Brassard, who circled the net and fired into an open right side at 15:52.
When Tlusty scored his second goal in the first minute of the third period, the Rangers had to wonder if they might need the season finale to punch their playoff ticket. After outshooting Carolina 16-4 in the second period, New York continued to push for chances in the third.
The Rangers finally scored the tying goal on a fluky play. Richards' shot off the end boards bounced off the right leg of goaltender Dan Ellis and into the net for a power-play goal with 2:57 left.
"I don't care what anyone says, it's a good goal," Stepan said with a smile. "[Brad's] had a year where it seems now it's starting to bounce his way and it's been great for him. He's helping this team tremendously and he has been since Day One."
The game was an appropriate bounce back for the Rangers after a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, the first game that would have clinched a playoff spot for New York.
"I thought we played really well tonight," coach John Tortorella said. "We gave up a couple 2-on-1s and that blocked shot for the third one. But it was a different game than it was in Florida. We gave up seven or eight chances, so I am really happy with the way we stayed with it. That’s the way to win it."
Callahan's game-winner will be one Rangers fans remember for a long time. Stepan started the play with a pass out of the defensive zone. Callahan gathered the puck in the neutral zone, skated past two Hurricanes defenders and sent a wrister past Ellis, who was hugging the post.
"I'm aiming far side there," Callahan said. "I know I have nothing short side, and I'm hoping [Ellis] is thinking maybe I'm going short side."
From there, the celebration began, with Callahan leaping into the arms of defenseman Anton Stralman.
"He has a lot of skill," Lundqvist said of Callahan. "That was a sick play from start to finish. It's a good thing to see your captain put it home and put us in the playoffs."
The Hurricanes hoped to build on a modest two-game winning streak, after losing 17 of the previous 19 games. But injuries to Alex Semin (concussion) and Joe Corvo (upper body) made it an uphill climb. Despite the lengthy dry spell, Carolina coach Kirk Muller said his team is playing quality hockey most nights.
"The way these guys played here tonight, I thought they did everything, being short the way we were," Muller said. "We played well. We did everything we wanted."
Jared Staal made his NHL debut for Carolina, joining brothers Eric and Jordan for the opening faceoff.
When the Rangers’ regular season ends after Saturday’s home game against New Jersey, they will already be in postseason mode. Playing so many meaningful games over the final month of the season should help fine-tune the team.
"We've been playing the playoffs the last two weeks," Callahan said. "We've known that a lot of these games were must win, and I think that's important that we play that style of hockey going in."
That’s the way Lundqvist sees it too. There’s nothing wrong with a little adversity to prepare for the hockey in May.
"It's definitely going to help us moving forward, the attention to details, making big plays at the right time," Lundqvist said. "I'm excited. This is a really good feeling right now."
|Derek Stepan (17) ASST: Carl Hagelin (13), Ryan Callahan (14)|
1 - 0 NYR
|Derick Brassard (12) ASST: Carl Hagelin (14), Michael Del Zotto (17)|
2 - 0 NYR
|PPG - Jiri Tlusty (22) ASST: Jeff Skinner (11), Marc-Andre Bergeron (8)|
2 - 1 NYR
|Tuomo Ruutu (3) ASST: Kevin Westgarth (2)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Jiri Tlusty (23) ASST: Eric Staal (33)|
3 - 2 CAR
|PPG - Brad Richards (11) ASST: Michael Del Zotto (18), Taylor Pyatt (5)|
3 - 3 Tie
|Ryan Callahan (15) ASST: Derek Stepan (25), Ryan McDonagh (15)|
4 - 3 NYR
|Matt Gilroy Tripping against Chad LaRose|
|Matt Gilroy Tripping against Bobby Sanguinetti|
|Tuomo Ruutu Interference against Ryan Callahan|
|Eric Staal Tripping against Carl Hagelin|
|Tuomo Ruutu Tripping against Derek Stepan|