In sweeping their weekend games -- while outscoring Tampa Bay and Washington by a combined 10-2 margin -- the Rangers played precisely the sort of hockey they expect from themselves every night. Their current four-day break between games provides some valuable rest but after practice on Sunday, they were already itching to get back into competition.
"You've got momentum now, you're on the heels of a couple big wins, and you're going up against somebody (Carolina) whose tail lights you're chasing, and here we are waiting to play," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "But there's nothing we can do about that. We'll just be prepared."
The Blueshirts' upcoming game at Carolina on Thursday night is just as important as the two weekend wins that not only lifted the Rangers to within four points of the Eastern Conference' top eight but also seemed to signaled a turning point in their season.
In beating the Lighting 5-0 and the Capitals 5-2, the Blueshirts dominated both ends of the ice . Their teamwork, discipline and attention to detail certainly delighted the 18,200 fans who saw them face Tampa Bay at the Garden on Friday - a game that featured points from 11 different players on the Rangers roster.
New line combinations, revamped power play units, and a couple of trades designed to spark the team all played a role in the great weekend success. The rest of the Eastern Conference will surely take note of those changes, but there is no defense for the collective determination that has taken hold.
"Just getting a couple wins changes everything. And the fact that we've been playing well together as a unit for a while is very important for us," said center Matt Cullen, who won the Stanley Cup with Carolina last season. "Getting these last two wins has been big to keep us in the race and take a step forward. We've just got to keep progressing now."
Renney pointed to more than just those wins as evidence of his team's preparedness for a strong playoff push.
"At the end of the day, you've got to score to win, and that had been fairly difficult in the last little while, but I think we're coming out of that," said Renney. "I think our power play has shown what it needs to do to have success, and because of that it brings confidence for what does lie ahead of us. If you're not playing hard and not paying attention to detail, you don't have a hope anyway. And we certainly have hope because of the way we're playing."
With 26 games to go, the Rangers are playing as if the playoffs have already begun. Based on last season's final standings, they would need about 16 wins to qualify for the postseason. That's the same number of victories needed to win a Stanley Cup, and he experience of pushing for 16 wins now could go a long way toward preparing for the next 16.
"We're just going to pay attention to being the best of the two teams on the ice every night, and that usually takes playoff-type hockey and playoff-type attention," said Renney. "So if what we're doing right now is a dress rehearsal for what we want to be doing in mid-April, then I'm fine with that."
At 27-24-5, the Rangers are only four points behind the eighth-place Hurricanes with two games in hand on Carolina. Depending on the result of Carolina's game against Los Angeles on Tuesday, a Rangers' win in Raleigh on Thursday could cut that gap to two points with three in hand. It would also pull the Rangers closer to Montreal and Tampa Bay, who would also need wins earlier in the week just to keep their distance.
"Everybody starts changing their game this time of the year, and it's a different league, certainly," said forward Sean Avery
, who has already made a big contribution to the Rangers since joining the team last Monday. "You want to peak the last week of the season. If you do that, you're going to go into the playoffs on a high note. So it feels good right now, and that's exactly what it is. We're in playoff mode every night, definitely."
By the time they face the Hurricanes on Thursday, the Rangers will have three games in hand against Carolina, three against Montreal and two against Tampa Bay. That's a lot of leverage, and it will put a lot of pressure on the other three teams to keep winning.
In each of the past four NHL seasons, a team with fewer than 27 wins after 56 games not only made the playoffs but also went to the Conference Finals. Last season it was Anaheim, which had 26 wins through 56 games. In 2004, it was San Jose, also with 26. Both the Ducks and Sharks won 17 of their final 26 games to get into the playoffs. In 2003, Anaheim had 26 wins after 56 games and needed only 14 more victories down the stretch to qualify.
"Look at Calgary when they went to the finals in 2004," said Avery. "I think they were in 10th or 11th place at one point. "I remember they were trying to catch us when I was in L.A., and they did, and then they went on a run to the finals. And the same thing with Anaheim prior to that. They played great, too."
The most remarkable recent performance along those lines belongs to the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes team that included current Rangers Marek Malik, Aaron Ward and Kevin Weekes. Through 56 games, the 'Canes had only 22 wins and the same number of points (59) that the Blueshirts now have. Playing in a weak Southeast Division, Carolina needed only 13 wins in its final 26 games to edge Washington for the division title and reach the playoffs as a No. 3 seed.
Once those 2002 Hurricanes got through to the postseason, they did some major damage - eliminating New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto on the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a prime example of how a team forced into an early playoff mindset benefited from that experience once the real thing arrived.
Five years later, the Hurricanes are among the teams the Rangers would bounce from the current playoff picture in order to qualify. The next step toward that goal will be a big one on Thursday in Carolina, but the step taken this past weekend has everyone on the Rangers looking forward to these next 26 games.
"It's about the integrity of your room. It's about belief in each other and the belief we have in all of us and in what we are capable of achieving," said Renney. "These guys love a challenge. That's why they're at the highest level you can play at."