After missing out on a prime opportunity to clinch a playoff berth Tuesday night by losing to the last-place Florida Panthers, the Rangers (24-18-4, 52 pts) will try once again to secure one of the top eight spots in the Eastern Conference on Thursday evening when they skate against another team eliminated from playoff contention, the Carolina Hurricanes(19-24-3, 41 pts). But as Tuesday night proved, any team is capable of beating another at any given time in the NHL. And if the Rangers are not sharp again Thursday, they could go into their final game of the season Saturday at home against New Jersey playing for their playoff lives in a must-win scenario.
The one real positive is that the Rangers hold their playoff fate in their own hands. With two games to play the Rangers need to secure two points in order to eliminate ninth-place Winnipeg. Of course a Winnipeg loss in regulation Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens would also clinch a playoff spot for the Blueshirts. And as Henrik Lundqvist said the other night in Florida, it does not matter how you get into the playoffs, it just matters that you do get there.
Though the Rangers had 38 shots on goal Tuesday night, the players and their coach did not feel there were enough quality scoring chances included in those shots. John Tortorella pointed out that the Rangers controlled most of the flow of the game, but did little of significance with that control. And surrendering the first goal of the game and giving life to a last-place team was deemed unacceptable by the Rangers, who hope not to repeat that scenario Thursday against a Hurricanes team coming off a 4-3 shootout win over the Islanders, but which still has lost 17 of its last 21 games.
The Rangers know first-hand how difficult a team Carolina can be to play against. Just 19 days ago Lundqvist was forced to spin quite a bit of magic in stopping a season-high 48 shots en-route to a 4-1 victory. Carolina's speed and aggressive forecheck caused the Rangers fits in their own end much of the game, especially in the third period. However a three-goal barrage in the second period gave the Rangers a 3-0 lead and provided some margin for error in a game where Lundqvist was simply sensational.
With the Rangers failing to clinch on Tuesday, it likely means Lundqvist will be forced into making his season-high 13th consecutive start on Thursday. The perfect scenario would have been to clinch Tuesday, let Marty Biron make his first start in goal since March 30th on Thursday, and then let Lundqvist get his final work in before the playoffs begin when the Rangers host the Devils on Saturday. Unfortunately that will not play out after a game in which Lundqvist only faced 15 shots and surrendered only two goals---both of which were redirected past him by deflections in front.
A key frustrating aspect of Tuesday's defeat which the Rangers will try and reverse tonight was losing the special teams battle against a Panthers squad featuring the league's worst penalty killing unit. The Rangers were 0-for-3 on the power play Tuesday, including failing with the man advantage in the final minutes of a one-goal game. And they only killed off one of Florida's two power plays, with the Panthers power play goal at 7:37 of the third period restoring their one-goal lead after Taylor Pyatt had drawn the Rangers even five minutes before.
But Tuesday is in the past and the Rangers full attention is on Thursday's contest against a Hurricanes team that has actually won two in a row and has posted a 3-2-1 record in its past six games. Those back-to-back victories are the first for Carolina since they won two straight March 9th and 12th.
Goaltender Dan Ellis starred Tuesday night against the Islanders making 36 saves, despite allowing a late goal to John Tavares which forced overtime. Ellis has received the bulk of the starts with Cam Ward injured. He has appeared in a team-high 18 games and posted a 3.08 goals against average, with a 6-8-1 record.
Will the Rangers beat the 'Canes and lock up a playoff spot for the third year in a row? Share your predictions below.