NEW YORK -- It's not that qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn't a worthy accomplishment; it's that the New York Rangers know there's so much work to be done before the end of the regular season.
The Rangers clinched a postseason berth with a 4-2 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Monday, making them the first Eastern Conference team to assure itself of a spot. They enter Thursday's games with a three-point lead over the Penguins for the top spot in the East, but have let a double-digit lead shrink to a point over the last month thanks to some inconsistent play on their end and outstanding play by the Penguins.
"There's no way you go into a season the way this League is and expect to be in (the playoffs)," Rangers coach John Tortorella said prior to Wednesday's 2-1 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden. "That's your goal -- to get in. We're happy we're in, but I just don't want that being the focus. We have a lot of things to do to try to compete in it. That's what I'm trying to say."
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"I am thrilled about how the team has played this year. In a lot of areas, we've overachieved and found answers to questions that we weren't even sure the questions were going to be asked. I'm really happy with the progress of the team and the road we're going down. We get our first step done in making the playoffs. Now we need to test ourselves in the next couple weeks and get our game completely straightened out and see what we do in the playoffs."
After beating winning 3-0 in Boston on Feb. 14, the Rangers led Boston by nine points and Pittsburgh by 10 for the No. 1 spot in the conference. Since that win, the Rangers have kept their distance from the Bruins, but have gone 9-7-2 while the Penguins have gone 13-2-1 to close the gap.
Wrapping up a playoff berth with 20 days remaining in the season can be considered an accomplishment by some -- especially for a team that had to go to the last game to make the playoffs last season and just missed two seasons ago. But with the Rangers now battling inconsistency, it's not viewed that way at all.
"I don't know if it's an achievement," said defenseman Dan Girardi, who was named the team's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nominee on Wednesday. "It's a good feeling to have to be able to tell yourselves you're in the playoffs. Now it's a matter of staying up top. We've got teams chasing us. The last three, four years have been down to the wire and it's kind of nerve-wracking. It takes it out of you as a player, mentally and physically to battle till the last day.
Despite the slump, the Rangers have put together three straight solid performances for the first time in a while, losing 3-1 to Colorado in a game that goaltender Semyon Varlamov stole for the Avs before beating the Devils and Wings. For Girardi, the key between now and mid-April is getting back on track before the playoffs begin.
"I think knowing we're in the playoffs is going to help to make us play that much harder to stay up top and we want home-ice advantage," Girardi said. "It's a good feeling to have -- but at the same time, we're not just going to get through the games and start the playoffs. That's not what we want to do. No matter what the result is, we want to play our best hockey going into the first round of the playoffs."