The New York Rangers' playoff hopes are alive and well -- thanks to a little help from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Rangers moved within two points of the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference by riding a fast start to a 5-0 victory over the Lightning on Friday night.
New York scored four times before the game was 15 minutes old, taking advantage of some sloppy play by Tampa Bay in its own zone, a couple of fortunate bounces and a bad night by goaltender Mike Smith -- who was coming off a 2-0 shutout at Pittsburgh two nights earlier. Henrik Lundqvist made 30 saves but was rarely tested on the way to his fourth shutout of the season.
"It felt really good," Lundqvist said of playing with a big lead -- an uncommon occurrence for the low-scoring Rangers. "It's a little scary to play these games when you get a big lead in the first. You never know -- you could slip if you're not careful. But we did well."
The Rangers have 80 points, tying them for ninth place with Atlanta and leaving them just two behind Boston and Philadelphia, who are tied for the last two playoff spots after the Flyers lost 1-0 at home to Montreal (84 points). With five games to play, the Rangers have a game in hand on Philadelphia, Montreal and Atlanta; they are even with Boston.
"We had big help last night," Lundqvist said, referring to losses by the Bruins (to Florida) and Philadelphia (to the New York Islanders). "We really wanted to take advantage of it tonight."
The Rangers are 4-0-1 in their last five games since a loss at Boston 12 days ago that appeared to end their playoff hopes and are playing like a team that expects to make the playoffs..
"When you start winning, you start feeling more confident," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "We just have to stay within ourselves and just try to find a way to play simple games and get wins."
Tampa Bay's minuscule playoff hopes all but expired after the Lightning fell to 5-14-1 in their last 20 games.
"The first three goals went in off our skates. We're not the kind of team that can recover from soft goals, fluky goals," coach Rick Tocchet said. "It was 'boom, boom boom,' a couple soft goals, goals off legs, and that was it."
But Tocchet wasn't pleased with the effort he saw up and down the lineup.
"Some guys are playing hard, and some guys just," he said, opting not to finish the sentence. "My bullets are not to play guys, but you can't play only 7, 8, 9, 10 guys. You try to mix and match."
The Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the game's first 3:34, taking advantage of a shaky start by Smith.
Brandon Prust got the Rangers on the board at 3:09 when he came out from behind the net to the left, found no defenseman to bother him and whacked away at the puck until it slid under Smith for his third of the season. Defenseman Marc Staal doubled the lead 25 seconds later when Smith waved at and missed his bad-angled wrister from outside the left circle.
Tampa Bay has struggled in its own zone all season, and the Rangers took advantage again at 11:21 to make it 3-0. Vaclav Prospal picked up a loose puck after Vladimir Mihalik couldn't handle a dump-in, came out from behind the net and had his pass deflect into the net off Mihalik's skate.
Smith had another puck go into the net off a Tampa Bay player as the Rangers made it 4-0 with a power-play goal at 14:55. Brandon Dubinsky hammered a slapper from the top of the right circle that Smith stopped with his pad -- only to see defenseman Kurtis Foster accidentally put the rebound into his own net while trying to clear the puck.
"We got fortunate tonight -- I think three (of the goals) in the first period went in off their skates," Tortorella said. "But when you're getting the puck to the net, good things happen."
The biggest cheer from the home fans at the St. Pete Times Forum came when the last minute of play announcement was made. The Bolts were booed as they skated off at the end of the first period, having allowed four goals on only seven shots.
The Lightning changed goalies to start the second period, replacing Smith with Antero Niittymaki, then got a chance to get back into the game when Jody Shelley was called for holding at 4:13 and Dubinsky took a delay of game call 40 seconds later for clearing the puck into the crowd. But they spent most of the 5-on-3 advantage passing the puck around the perimeter and generated no real scoring chances.
"It was really important," Tortorella said of killing the two-man advantage. "What if they score two on a 5-on-3? I thought we did a great job taking away some of their options that they wanted."
Lundqvist was finally forced to make a big stop 12:30 into the second period when he robbed Brandon Bochenski, who was set up alone in front by Steven Stamkos, then stopped Mattias Ohlund's one-handed rebound try. Off the subsequent draw, he also denied Nate Thompson from right in front of the crease after a turnover.
Aaron Voros wrapped up the scoring when Niittymaki batted the rebound of his shot into the net 6:10 left in the third after the goaltender misplayed a dump-in behind the Lightning net.
The Rangers play the fifth of a six-game trip Saturday night at Florida -- their fourth consecutive game against a team outside the top eight in the East.
"These are desperate times right now," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "Today was great; now we have to focus on tomorrow night in Florida."
Material from team media was used in this report