The Rangers mantra heading into their regular-season finale Saturday, from head coach John Tortorella right on through the lineup, was that they wanted to finish as high in the Eastern Conference standings as possible, regardless of whom their opponent would be in the first-round of the playoffs.
That goal was accomplished in full by Saturday night as their 4-0 win over the New Jersey Devils, coupled with Ottawa's 2-1 home-ice loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, vaulted the Rangers into sixth place in the East---setting up a first-round series against the Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals, who own the conference's third seed.
"We wanted to move up into sixth (place) because you never know what happens when you go deep into the playoffs," explained alternate captain Brad Richards on Saturday. "Sixth, you could get home ice depending on what else happens. You never know. We had a good win (Saturday), but it's going to be ramped up, the next time we play is going to be a lot different out there. I am excited for the playoffs to start."
The Rangers surged down the stretch of the regular season, winning five of their last six games, and seven of nine, to climb over the Islanders and the Senators into sixth place, after finally clinching a playoff berth on Ryan Callahan's overtime goal against Carolina in the next-to-the-last-game of the season this past Thursday.
"You always want to come in (to the playoffs) with a good atmosphere in the room and with some confidence," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said of the Rangers strong finish to the regular season. "But at the same time you kind of start over. It's a new season, and when you play a team head-to-head like you do in the playoffs it's a big mental game going on, and you really need to make big plays at key times."
Certainly the Rangers know about facing the Capitals head-to-head in the post-season. Not only did the Rangers eliminate the Caps in a dramatic seven-game conference semif-finals series last spring, but this will be the third straight season these two teams are meeting in the playoffs. And it will be the fourth time in the past five seasons the Rangers and Capitals will face-off against one another in the post-season.
In fact since Tortorella took over the coaching reigns of the Rangers late in the 2008-09 season, four of the six playoff series he has coached in have come against Washington. The Caps ousted the Rangers in seven games in 2009 and again in five games in 2011, both in the first round, before the Blueshirts took out the Caps in seven a year ago. In each series, the team with home-ice advantage won.
"Going as far as we did last year (to the Eastern Conference Finals) is going to help us, especially some of the younger guys on the team," noted center Derek Stepan, who led the Rangers in scoring with 44 points this season. "At the same time, though, it's a brand-new year and we're in a different spot, we're a different team."
Of the current Rangers, only 13 players appeared in last year's series against the Capitals, and two of them---Marc Staal and Brian Boyle---are currently injured. Rick Nash heads a list of players which includes Derick Brassard, John Moore, Mats Zuccarello, Arron Asham, Taylor Pyatt, Darroll Powe, Matt Gilroy, former Cap Roman Hamrlik, and the injured Ryane Clowe and Derek Dorsett as those currently on the roster who did not face Washington last season.
"This is what you want to play in as a professional athlete, these games that are meaningful, the playoffs," explained Nash, who will be appearing in only the second playoff series of his career. "We're there now, so we have to make sure we are ready to produce."
The official schedule of games will be announced later in the day on Sunday. BlueshirtsUnited.com will have all of the information as soon as it becomes available.