(CP) - Don't forget about the New York Rangers in the battle for the final few playoff spots in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
Only seven points separate sixth-place Tampa Bay from the 11th-place Rangers with Carolina, Montreal, the New York Islanders and Toronto sandwiched in between and seven and half weeks to go in the regular season. The Rangers, who play at Carolina on Thursday night, feel they're primed for a run.
"I do feel that way. It's not just yapping, it's the real deal," Rangers head coach Tom Renney said Wednesday. "I've seen the way we've played in the last two weeks. If we were in the playoffs and they were starting tomorrow, I would feel very, very good about playing anybody."
It might be more coincidence than fact but the Rangers seemed to have received a jolt after the acquisition of bad boy winger Sean Avery from Los Angeles on Feb. 5, going 2-0-1 and scoring 17 goals.
"Coming out of the all-star break I thought we played well," said Renney. "And then the injection of Sean's tenacity in our lineup and his hockey sense and ability to play the game, certainly hasn't hurt us at all.
"We can win in different ways now with him because it's helped diversify our lineup."
The battle for Renney all year long has been to find secondary scoring behind Jaromir Jagr's top line. The additions of Avery and winger Pascal Dupuis - acquired from Minnesota last Friday - has given Renney some new options.
"It's an advantage I haven't had really throughout the year," said Renney, in his second season behind the Rangers' bench. "It's been one line and trying to manufacture a little more offence from the rest of the group.
"Now that we've got a few more irons in the fire, it gives me a chance to really mix and match."
He didn't want to tip his hand as to how his forward lines would look like for Thursday's game against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
In the meantime, the Rangers are looking for some consistency. It's been a season full of streaks, none more so than in December when a season-high five-game win streak was followed by a season-high seven-game losing streak.
"It's amazing the ebb and flow of a hockey season," said Renney, a former Canadian national team coach. "The big thing is to just not be overwhelmed by either instance."
The Rangers control their fate. They face the ninth-place Islanders four more times before the season is out, as well as facing the Canadiens three times, the Hurricanes twice (including Thursday) and the Maple Leafs once more - 10 games against teams right in front of them in the standings.
"There's 26 games to go, 52 points up for grabs," said Renney. "We've got a pretty good idea what it's going to take as a number to make the playoffs this year. We feel we're a team on a mission now. ...
"We feel better about that pursuit than we did a few weeks ago."