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Lundqvist, Rangers ready for another postseason run

New York clinches playoff berth behind elite goalie, home success

by David Satriano @davidsatriano / Staff Writer

The New York Rangers started out the season winning 16 of 21 games before enduring a two-month stretch in which they didn't win consecutive games. They haven't been the most consistent team this season, but they haven't fallen out of the top three in the Metropolitan Division at any point.

With a 4-2 win at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, the Rangers clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight season; the last time they made the playoffs for at least six consecutive seasons was when they qualified for 10 straight from 1977-78 to 1986-87.

New York made it to the Eastern Conference Final each of the past two seasons, losing in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. In 2014, they defeated the Montreal Canadiens in six games before losing to the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Final.

"It's tough to get to the dance," coach Alain Vigneault said Monday after the win in Columbus. "People don't realize how hard that is to get the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup. We finally got our checkmark. In order for our guys to get the checkmark, you've got to play some good hockey. This group for the most part has played some good hockey." 

Video: NYR@CBJ: Lundqvist denies Atkinson on the doorstep

Here are five reasons the Rangers clinched:

1. The King is still The King

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist continues to carry the Rangers. He earned his 350th NHL win this season, became the first goalie to have at least 20 wins in each of his first 11 seasons in the Leauge, and has at least 30 wins in each of his 10 full NHL seasons.

Lundqvist has allowed two goals or fewer in 38 of 63 games, and has been New York's MVP yet again.

"Every game, you know that you're going to get his best effort and you're going to get great preparation and he's going to give you a chance to win, and that's what you want from your goaltender," Vigneault said after a 2-1 win against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 25.

Video: NYR@MTL: Rangers retake the lead on Brassard's goal

2. Center of attention

Derick Brassard has excelled as the top-line center when he's been put in that role. He already set a new NHL career high in goals (27) and has 58 points, two shy of the career high he set last season.

Brassard, who is averaging more ice time and has more power-play points and game-winning goals than last season, has been a catalyst in the Rangers offense.

"It's great to see him break through here before the [All-Star] break and obviously get some confidence back in his game," captain Ryan McDonagh told the Rangers website after Brassard had a career-high five points in a 6-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 25. "He knows he is a big impact player for us."

Forward Mats Zuccarello, who often has been Brassard's linemate, already has set an NHL career high in goals (26) and tied his career high in points (59). He has played in every game this season after he sustained a brain contusion and fractured skull during the 2015 playoffs, leads the Rangers in points, and has arguably been their most important offensive player.

"It's always fun to score goals. For sure, it's not every day that you score three, at least not me," Zuccarello said after his first NHL hat trick on Oct. 30. "We've played with each other for a while now, especially me and [Brassard] and [Rick Nash] as well. We're kind of connecting."

Video: BUF@NYR: Stepan's tip-in brings Rangers within 1

3. Feeling right at home

The Rangers are 25-9-4 at Madison Square Garden, with a plus-30 goal differential. They play their final three games at MSG.

New York, which trails the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points for second place in the Metropolitan Division, has lost consecutive games in regulation at home once. A big part of that is the Rangers' ability to close out games; they are 25-2-2 when leading entering the third period and have scored 87 goals in the third period.

Video: NYR@WSH: Yandle scores PPG with a shot from the point

4. Keith Yandle

In Yandle's first full season in New York, the Rangers have gotten everything they hoped for when they acquired the veteran defenseman from the Arizona Coyotes on March 1, 2015. He has proven he can play with anyone, whether it's on the top pair or the third pair, and he's been not only dependable defensively, but offensively as well.

Yandle has five goals and 45 points, with 21 coming on the power play, and is as durable as they come; he has not missed a game in seven seasons and played 84 last season with the Rangers and Coyotes.

"There's no doubt as far as the right decisions with the puck at the right time, defensively being very dependable, this is the best that I've seen him be, the most comfortable I've seen him be also," Vigneault said "… It takes time to adjust, but now he is a big part of our team, part of our core guys, or leaders in the dressing room that want to be here and want to win."

Video: NYR@CAR: Nash shakes defender to score great goal

5. Health

With seventh defenseman Dylan McIlrath available to return to the lineup after a knee injury, the Rangers entered their game Monday with a fully healthy roster before McDonagh left after the first period with an upper-body injury. Although forward Rick Nash missed 20 games with a bone bruise and McDonagh has missed six games with several injuries, the Rangers have lost 88 man-games to injury this season, far fewer than the 130 for the 82-game regular season in 2014-15, which saw Lundqvist miss 24 games with a neck injury.

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