Rangers head coach John Tortorella said prior to Saturday's season finale at The Garden that his team was "trying to go as high as we can" in the Eastern Conference standings and wouldn't be letting up at all just because the Blueshirts had clinched a playoff berth in their previous game Thursday night in Carolina.
True to their coach's word, the Rangers came out firing on all cylinders Saturday afternoon, skating to a 4-0 season-ending victory over the New Jersey Devils in front of an appreciative and playoff-ready sold-out crowd. Though their final playoff seeding still has yet to be determined---and same for their first-round playoff opponent---the Rangers did leapfrog the Islanders into seventh place in the East with the victory and will not have to face the conference's top team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Rangers could finish in either sixth or seventh place depending upon the results of the Ottawa Senators' final two games Saturday night and Sunday evening.
The Rangers received goals from all three of their leading goal scorers on Saturday as Rick Nash netted a pair---giving him 21 on the season, Derek Stepan scored his 18th, and Ryan Callahan poured in his 16th of the season. Stepan and Callahan also finished with two-point games, and Brad Richards contributed two assists while playing in his 900th NHL game.
With the team still playing for playoff positioning, Tortorella decided to start Henrik Lundqvist in goal against the Devils instead of giving him some rest before the post-season gets underway next week. Lundqvist responded with a 20-save effort and his league-leading 24th victory of the season while making his season-high 14th straight start between the pipes. The shutout was his second of the season, 45th of his career and seventh all-time against the Devils.
Including the playoffs, Lundqvist now has 51 career shutouts, and he surpassed Eddie Giacomin for first place on the Rangers all-time list in that category with Saturday's blanking of the Devils.
Stepan opened the scoring 2:37 into the first period, one-timing a quick pass from Callahan in the slot past Devils goalie Johan Hedberg. Stepan played in all 48 games during this shortened season and led the team with 44 points (18-26-44), two better than Nash (21-21-42) who appeared in 44 games.
Callahan scored a shorthanded goal with 58.8 seconds to play in the first period to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. It was actually Callahan's second shorthanded breakaway of the period--he had been robbed earlier when Hedberg made a brilliant left-toe save---and this time Callahan made a great fake before slipping the puck five-hole on the Devils netminder for the Blueshirts fifth shorthanded goal of the season, Callahan's second shorty.
Nash then went to work scoring late in the second period and early in the third to put the game away. Nash reached the 20-goal plateau for the ninth consecutive season when he one-timed a shot from the left circle past Hedberg at 17:23 of the second period. Richards earned the lone assist---passing to Nash from behind the New Jersey net---giving him his first point of the afternoon in his 900th career game.
Then 5:30 into the third period Nash rifled another shot past Hedberg for his team-leading 21st goal of the season, giving the Rangers a 4-0 lead. Mats Zuccarello whipped a perfect pass into the slot for the primary assist, and Richards also picked up a helper on the score.
The Rangers, who went 10-3-1 down the stretch of the season, played without injured forwards Ryane Clowe and Brian Boyle on Saturday. Kris Newbury was inserted into the lineup, and Arron Asham returned after missing the game Thursday due to the birth of his child.
Check back on BlueshirtsUnited.com for the Rangers first-round playoff schedule as soon as it is announced.