NEW YORK -- Last season, the Rangers had to wait until the final day of the season to secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, catching a break when the Carolina Hurricanes
lost to a Tampa Bay Lightning
team that had secured its playoff position.
On Monday night, the Rangers can become the first Eastern Conference team to clinch a spot in the postseason by simply earning a point against the New Jersey Devils
at Madison Square Garden. If the Rangers lose in regulation, they'll have to wait at least another day before punching their playoff ticket.
What was once an insurmountable lead for the top spot in the East has been whittled to one point on the Pittsburgh Penguins
. The Philadelphia Flyers
have played one more game than the Rangers and are three points back.
If the Rangers continue to play mediocre hockey -- they are 7-7-2 since Feb. 14 -- home-ice advantage in the first round might slip away. That's something that's not a concern to coach John Tortorella.
"It's certainly not on my mind, home ice," Tortorella said. "It's how you're playing. If you have the opportunity to play in the playoffs, it's how you're playing. So I guess your momentum going into it is very important. We're just trying to play the right way. We certainly did our last game, even after breaking the tape down, I was even more pleased by some of the things we did, but we didn't get the result.
"We're still in the regular season. We're trying to talk about playing the right away, and I believe we will. I have full faith in the hockey club. We've had a little bump here, but I thought we were dead on in our game the other night. Hopefully we can bring it into tonight."
Tortorella probably didn't mind home-ice advantage when his Tampa Bay Lightning
won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2004 at home against the Calgary Flames
and Game 7 of the Eastern Final at home against the Flyers. Rangers center Brad Richards
was a member of that team and the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and said while finishing atop the East that season was nice, it doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.
"I don't know if it's important, but it's good to play a Game 7 at home," Richards told NHL.com. "To start a series at home, sometimes it's harder. I don't think it matters much anymore. Look at Boston last year. I'm sure Vancouver felt very good coming home for Game 7. Once you get that far in, players block everything out. You're so focused and in tune it doesn't really matter anymore."
Does having the last change in that game matter?
"In one game, I don't think so," Richards said. "By that far, everybody knows exactly what everybody is doing. It can go both ways. We were happy to have our two Game 7s that we needed at home. So, who knows?"
The Rangers have spent the past month talking less about results and more about their overall play. It begs the question -- would Richards prefer to be the No. 5 seed and have the team playing well, or would he rather see the Rangers plod along and grab the No. 1 seed in spite of that? After all, the Rangers 24-9-2 at home, the fifth-best mark in the NHL.
"I think if we're playing well, we'll be pretty close to the top, and that's still where you want to be," Richards said. "It's so tough to say I want to finish here or finish there, really you just let him fall. You're going to have to beat the best teams to get where you want to go. All 16 teams, it's crazy, you have a chance if you get in. It's happened a lot over the past however many years. Two years ago in the East, it was 7 vs. 8 in the conference finals (Canadiens vs. Flyers). So you don't know. You just want to be playing good hockey and have everything fine-tuned and it's whole new ballgame once that starts."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo