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Rangers beat Canadiens, clinch playoff berth

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Defenseman Fedor Tyutin was back in the lineup on Thursday night after missing more than a month with an injured knee.

Playoff Tickets Go On Sale April 10
Bobby Granger's Playoff-Clinching Victory Dance
Ortmeyer wins McDonald/Extra Effort Award


POSTGAME VIDEO FROM MSG
Sam and Joe Recap the Rangers' Win WMP
Coach Renney's Postgame Comments WMP

POSTGAME AUDIO FROM MSG
Lundqvist on Clinching a Playoff Berth WMP
Jagr Talks About the Rangers' Big Win WMP

Scoresheet | Stats | Faceoffs | Play-by-Play | Shift Chart

The moment Rangers fans had been awaiting for 81 regular-season games arrived in style on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, as the Blueshirts blanked the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 to clinch their second straight berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Petr Prucha, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Malik delivered the goals, and netminder Henrik Lundqvist turned in another dominating performance with 25 saves, as the Rangers rolled over a Montreal team that had won seven of its last eight. Appropriately, it was a total team effort, built on stingy play in front of their own net, that carried the Rangers to victory.

It was also only fitting that the Blueshirts' playoff-clinching win came against the same Canadiens squad they faced at the beginning of a 13-2-4 surge that lifted them from the depths of the NHL's Eastern Conference to where they are now -- one of the hottest of 16 NHL teams headed for the postseason.

On Feb. 27, just hours after the trade deadline, the Rangers took The Garden ice against these same Canadiens, and shut them out 4-0. Who knew the remarkable roll that began for the team that evening would carry all the way into the next MSG meeting with the Habs in the final regular-season home game?

"I thought at the start of the season we had a good team, but we didn't play smart enough," said Lundqvist. "We have a lot of talent, but we took a lot of risks, which cost us a couple of points. After Christmas, and especially after the (All-Star) break, we started to play playoff hockey. We played smart, managed the puck better and it started to pay off. We started to take pride in small things and play better hockey."

Yet that's exactly what happened. By the end of the evening on Thursday, the Rangers were celebrating their fans with the ritual stick salute and annual "Blueshirts Off Our Backs" ceremony, paying tribute to the Garden Faithful who spurred them on through a 9-1-1 run over their last 11 games at home, including five consecutive victories.

"It depends on the way you look at it," Jagr said of the Rangers' recent play. "If you look at it from the beginning of the season, a lot of people expected us to make the playoffs. We had a tough time the first 40 or 50 games. Not many people thought we could do it after the All-Star (break). It was tough to make it. Once you make it, you never know what will happen."

In truth, the Rangers didn't need to win on Thursday to clinch their playoff berth, because it also hinged on a loss by Toronto in Long Island. The Isles beat The Leafs 5-2, but with their outstanding play against Montreal, the Blueshirts made the Coliseum score irrelevant.

Even if they finished first in the Eastern Conference this season, it is hard to imagine the Rangers hitting the playoffs in better shape than the way they'll enter them next week. No team in the entire conference has been more consistently successful than the Blueshirts since the trade deadline.

"There are moments when you are trying to discover yourself as a team, and you make decisions that are good and that are not good," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "I think what happened here in the last month or so, and I don't know that it culminates with tonight, is that we have been more complete thinkers.

Jagr was quick to credit one of his teammates as the catalyst for much of the Rangers' success since the All-Star break.

"The way I look at it, I would say (it was) the addition of Sean Avery," said Jagr. "We changed the lines around. We put three offensive lines together. He gives our coach a chance to shuffle the players around and still have more than one line with offense."

So for now, it's all about where the Blueshirts currently sit -- sixth place.

The Rangers can finish sixth overall in the conference if they win in Pittsburgh on Saturday. Even if Tampa Bay wins its remaining games against Florida and Atlanta -- a season finale which could decide the Southeast Division champion and the Rangers' first-round playoff opponent -- the Blueshirts would remain in sixth with a win over Pittsburgh. That's because Tampa Bay would pass Atlanta in the standings, win its division and drop the Thrashers below the Rangers into seventh.

A year ago, the Rangers went into the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, but they were caught in a losing streak at that time. This time around, sixth place is a very good place to be.

"It is a different story when you go into the playoffs," said Lundqvist. "Last year we had a lot of injuries. We have a couple of guys coming back. When it starts next week, it takes everyone to be on the same page to get some results. I feel good. I feel confident with these guys."

It was a total playoff atmosphere from start to finish on Thursday night, which should make the Rangers' next home game -- in the postseason -- feel very familiar.

The crowd was in this one all night, from the moment the Blueshirts took an early 1-0 lead on Prucha's goal to the moment the final seconds ticked off with Montreal desperately trying to cash in on a late power-play opportunity. Indeed, as soon it was announced to the sellout crowd that the Rangers had clinched a playoff berth, booming chants of "We Want the Cup" were already echoing through The Garden.

The game-winner ended up going to the Rangers' captain, Jagr, after the Habs managed their lone goal on a third-period 5-on-3 power play. That goal, scored by Sheldon Souray, spoiled Lundqvist's shutout bid with only 4:43 remaining and gave Souray an NHL record for power-play goals in one season by a defenseman (19).

The record Souray broke at MSG had been shared by Adrian Aucoin and former Rangers nemesis Denis Potvin, and it was the only major regular-season NHL record still associated with Potvin.

"We didn't have the urgency in our game early as well as the desperation we have been playing with the last few weeks," said Souray. "They got a good jump on us. They were able to get the momentum, get the lead and they kept it throughout the game. We just sat back. We were a little bit too cautious. We didn't want to make mistakes. When we do that, it always catches up to us."

Prucha scored in the first period, with Jagr and Malik finding the net in the second to give the Rangers the same advantage they held after two periods of the last Rangers-Habs meeting at The Garden, a game won 4-0 by the Blueshirts on Feb. 27.

Even with the Souray goal, the third period was little more than an exercise in killing time for a Rangers team that had worked so hard to put themselves in position to win.

The dominating second period that essentially sealed the game was a reversal of the last time these teams faced each other in a second period. In building up their 3-0 lead, the Rangers avoided a repeat of a March 27 meltdown at the Bell Centre, and controlled play for much of the period, finally cashing in on Jagr's goal at 11:18 and then adding some insurance with Malik's tally at 18:26.

By the second intermission, Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau decided he had seen enough of starting goalie Jaroslav Halak, replacing him with Cristobal Huet to finish the game. Huet was solid with eight saves in the third period, but it was too little, too late for the Habs.

On the night, the Blueshirts outshot the Canadiens 33-26 and limited Montreal's vaunted power play to just one goal, killing five of six shorthanded situations.

Just as in his Feb. 27 game at MSG, Lundqvist wasn't tested often, but he was forced to make some spectacular saves, with none bigger than his stop on Canadiens goals leader Michael Ryder, who was alone in front at 15:41 of the second period. The rebound of Ryder's shot came out to Saku Koivu, but the Habs captain couldn't control it in time, and he sent the puck wide of the right post.

Lundqvist would later make another tremendous save on Ryder midway through the third period, but by that point the game was clearly out of reach for the visitors.

Jagr's game-winner stretched the lead to 2-0 at 11:18 of the second period, as he notched his team-leading 30th goal of the season off a crafty pass from Michael Nylander.

With the Rangers pressuring in Montreal's zone, Brendan Shanahan spotted Nylander coming out from behind the net. Shanahan fed Nylander as he reached the left faceoff circle, and Nylander slid a pass to a wide-open Jagr in the slot, giving the Rangers a two-goal cushion more than halfway through the game.

Jagr's tally gave him 30 goals for the 15th consecutive season, tying the NHL record held by Hall of Famer and former Ranger Mike Gartner. He also became the first Rangers player to hit 30 this season.

Nylander's assist on the goal ran his season-high point-scoring streak to eight games. Nylander has already established career highs in goals and points this season.

Late in the middle period, the Rangers continued to pour on the pressure, taking their 3-0 lead on a goal by defenseman Malik, who fired a slapper from the top of the left faceoff circle that Halak barely saw until it was already past him with 1:34 remaining in the period.

Jagr assisted on Malik's goal, giving him 96 points on the season. Jagr had been flying for much of the period and nearly scored on an end-to-end rush at 6:33 of the second, when he drew a penalty on Montreal's Mathieu Dandenault.

The Rangers outshot the Canadiens 15-8 for the opening period, but Montreal had only one shot in the first seven minutes and did not get the bulk of its chances until late in the period. Lundqvist was sharp under fire, however, enabling his team to come out of those first 20 minutes unscathed.

Montreal needed a win on Thursday and a Toronto loss on the Island in order to clinch its own playoff berth. The Habs will get another chance to clinch by beating the Leafs on Saturday.

"We knew if we lost tonight we had another chance on Saturday," said Canadiens coach Carbonneau. "I wish we came out a little harder and gave ourselves a chance and not have Saturday be the night."

Given the playoff implications surrounding the game, it was no surprise that play was tentative in the opening period, with no penalties called and few major scoring chances for either team. Even Prucha's goal came as the result of a long shot that Halak saw but was unable to stop.

Prucha gave the Rangers their 1-0 lead just under three minutes into the game, when he picked up a pass from Matt Cullen at center ice and sped into the Montreal zone along the right boards, unleashing a hard slap shot from the top of the right circle that cleanly beat Halak at 2:53.

Defenseman Dan Girardi picked up the second assist on the goal, Prucha's 21st of the season, which seemed to swing all of the momentum to the Blueshirts. Montreal mounted some pressure in the moments after Prucha scored, but the Rangers came right back and threatened again, with Halak forced to make a save on another drive from the right circle by Avery and then another from the left circle by Cullen at 5:40.

Looking his sharpest in the first period, Halak was tested again on back-to-back quick-release shots by Shanahan from the right circle at the 10:35 mark. He kicked out long rebounds with his right pad on both attempts, but the Habs were able to pounce on them and clear the zone. Halak then came up with a big glove save on a Jagr blast from just inside the blue line at 11:55.

Lundqvist did not come under heavy pressure until a Montreal flurry just under 15 minutes into the game. During the 36-second sequence, he made five total saves, including a brilliant stop on Tomas Plekanec from just outside the crease at 14:25.

"I don't think we played really bad," said Carbonneau. "You would think in a game with that much on the line, we would come out with more passion and energy. I don't know why but we sat there and watched them for the first 30 minutes. We came after them a little bit more but it was too late."

Thursday's game featured the return of defenseman Fedor Tyutin, who had missed 12 games due to a knee injury suffered on March 1 at The Garden during a game against Pittsburgh. Tyutin was paired on defense with Girardi. Jason Strudwick, who had joined the team for the final 10 regular-season games after spending most of the year in Switzerland, was a healthy scratch to clear room on the roster for Tyutin.

Prior to the game, Rangers forward Jed Ortmeyer was named the winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, presented by HIP Health Plan of New York. Ortmeyer, who missed the first half of the season recovering from a pulmonary embolism suffered last August, was recognized in a vote of Rangers fans as a player who went "above and beyond the call of duty" in 2006-07. It was the second time in three seasons that Ortmeyer has been the Rangers fans' choice for the honor.

In his speech before giving Ortmeyer the award, McDonald spoke of his fight to survive gunshot wounds 20 years ago. He then asked the Rangers to show that same will to do just one thing – win.

"Well first of all, I don't know if any human being on this planet could have inspired us any more than Stephen McDonald did to start this whole thing," said Renney. "We were staring courage right in the face (looking at him) while we are out there playing a sport. People are cheering for us and all that kind of stuff. And there is that gentleman sitting in a wheel-chair and I don't think anyone could have said anything more powerful than what he did to help us start tonight. Having said that, we played a pretty good team game tonight. We looked like a team that was certainly identifying with what playoff hockey looks like and what we need to do to be successful when we get there. We certainly followed our game plan, no question about that. Most of the guys responded out on the ice."

The Rangers also announced two team awards on Thursday. Shanahan earned the Player's Player Award, which goes to the players' choice for most valuable teammate. Lundqvist earned the media-selected MVP trophy.
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