NEW YORK -- Rick Nash is back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs four years after the lone appearance of his career -- a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings. The New York Rangers' big offseason acquisition credits the team's two biggest leaders -- goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and captain Ryan Callahan -- for getting him there.
"I think the last stretch, we've been really good. I think Hank [Lundqvist] has been the leader of it and Callahan has been unbelievable," Nash said Saturday after the Rangers ended the regular season by blitzing the New Jersey Devils 4-0. "Everyone just follows behind the two leaders. Once you see those guys going, you jump on board and play as hard as you can."
Nash, acquired by the Rangers from the Columbus Blue Jackets last summer, scored twice and Callahan contributed a goal and an assist in the opening period while Lundqvist stopped 20 shots to earn his 45th career shutout before a delighted full house at Madison Square Garden. Derek Stepan also scored for the Rangers, who were assured of finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference when the Ottawa Senators lost 2-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night.
The Rangers ended the regular season with 56 points, moving them past the New York Islanders, who finished with 55. The Senators (54 points) can match the Rangers' point total by beating the Boston Bruins on Sunday but New York wins tiebreaker because it has more non-shootout wins.
Johan Hedberg made 17 saves for the Devils (19-19-10), who missed the playoffs one year after advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
Playing against a Devils team they eliminated from playoff contention at MSG six days earlier, the Rangers wanted to get off to a fast start. That strategy has been paying off for New York over the past few weeks, thanks in large part to the aggressive forecheck of Callahan, Stepan and Carl Hagelin, the line that opened Sunday's game against New Jersey by scoring 34 seconds after the opening faceoff.
The Rangers' top line couldn't beat Hedberg on their first shift this time around, but their second time on the ice yielded a goal as Stepan opened the scoring at 2:37 following a perfect passout by Callahan. The goal marked the fourth time this month that Stepan has opened the scoring within the game's first 3:30.
"I think it's an emphasis for our team to come out and get a lead early. Just jump on a team with our forecheck and use our speed. That's something our line really focuses on," said Stepan, who also assisted on Callahan's goal. "The way we're playing, we need to continue to work hard. When we do get the puck on our stick, we've been able to make plays. That's going to help your confidence."
Callahan's assist extended his point streak to seven games, matching his career high. The Rangers captain then forced Hedberg to make a sprawling stop four minutes later as he raced down the left wing while killing a tripping penalty to Hagelin.
As play tightened up, New York then proceeded to go the next 11 minutes without a shot, a span that included a tripping penalty to Ryan Carter in which the Rangers failed to mount much of an attack. But the Rangers captain wasn't done yet.
While Taylor Pyatt served a hooking penalty, Callahan took a cross-ice pass from Stepan and beat Hedberg between the legs with 59 seconds remaining in the period. The goal was Callahan's second shorthanded tally of the season and gave the 28-year-old his fifth goal in five games.
Hedberg was able to keep the Devils in the game early in the second, making big pad saves off Nash and Mats Zuccarello in quick succession. Darroll Powe's hooking penalty gave the Devils an opportunity to answer back 5:52 into the period. But that Devils advantage was negated when Adam Henrique was whistled for holding 64 seconds later.
"We were not good. It was a bad situation that we did not handle well," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "We had some opportunities to bounce back and we played some good hockey. But we just never found a streak."
New Jersey's puck possession improved in the second, but the Devils struggled to create quality scoring chances against Lundqvist. That slower pace played perfectly into the Rangers' hands, as Nash gave New York an insurmountable 3-0 lead when he beat Hedberg from the slot at 17:23 following a feed from behind the net by Brad Richards. Nash scored his second of the game and 21st of the season 5:30 into the final period, finishing off a perfect passing sequence involving Richards and Zuccarello.
The Rangers finished April with a 10-3-1 record after going 4-7-1 in their last 12 games in March. Those struggles highlighted certain deficiencies on a club that opened the season among the teams favored to win the Stanley Cup. But with their balanced scoring and Lundqvist's stellar play in net over the past few weeks, the team is getting hot at the right time.
"I am happy with the way we handled ourselves through the whole year. We have been inconsistent, but I think we made some big plays, won some big games to keep us afloat during the tough times," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "That’s what it is about -- just find a way to get points. And they did that with more consistency within their game the last four or five weeks."
With New York's regular season officially over, the team was focused solely on the postseason, even if they were not yet sure where they would be playing their next game. But for a team that may have discovered its game over the past four weeks, there was a palpable excitement following an important win over a division rival looking to play spoiler.
The lone player on New York's roster to have won a Stanley Cup hopes the best is yet to come.
"I don’t know what is going to happen but it's a relief to get in," said Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when he led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Cup in 2004. "It's a great time of year. I'm excited and ready to go. This is by far the best time to play hockey. I can't wait."