The final regular-season home game couldn’t have gone much better for the Rangers, who clinched an Eastern Conference playoff spot with a 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night.
Jaromir Jagr reached the 30-goal mark for the 15th straight season and added an assist to carry the Rangers back into the playoffs. New York had a chance to get in two nights earlier, but a shootout loss to the rival Islanders delayed the party.
Leaving it until the final game would’ve proved tricky.
“The sooner the better,” Jagr said. “If I knew we were going to win, I would say that I’d rather win it at home. But there are no guarantees.”
The celebration was on at centre ice after the final buzzer, and lucky fans took home player sweaters – an annual final-game tradition.
In a strange twist, the Rangers’ win kept the Islanders’ playoff hopes alive. The Rangers will be either the sixth or seventh seed. The Islanders, Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs – who lost on Long Island on Thursday – are fighting for the final Eastern spot.
Montreal will play at Toronto on Saturday night. The Canadiens would be in with a win or an overtime or shootout loss.
“It’s disappointing, but we don’t have time to be down,” said Sheldon Souray, who scored the lone Montreal goal. “We’re going to have to go out and put our best game on the ice because it’s going to be a tough one.”
Depending on what happens in the Southeast Division race between Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Rangers could finish ahead of the club that comes in second. If New York gains the sixth seed, it would play either Tampa Bay or Atlanta – thus avoiding New Jersey, which swept the Rangers out of the first round last year in four games.
Rangers coach Tom Renney said he will go full force in the season finale at Pittsburgh on Saturday. So expect Henrik Lundqvist, 8-1-1 in his last 10, to be back in goal for the 45th time in 46 games.
“It is a different story when you go into the playoffs,” Lundqvist said. “When it starts next week, it takes everyone on the same page to get some results. I feel good. I feel confident with these guys.”
Jagr, finishing his first season as Rangers captain, has scored at least 30 goals in every NHL campaign following his rookie year with Pittsburgh – joining Mike Gartner as the only NHL players to do it 15 straight times. He gave New York a 2-0 lead with 8:42 left in the second and then helped set up defenceman Marek Malik’s goal with 1:34 remaining in the frame.
After a seven-season absence, the Rangers have reached the post-season for the second straight year and brought Tampa Bay in with them.
“You would think with a game with that much on the line that we would come out with more passion and energy,” Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said. “I don’t know why, but we sat there and watched them for 30 minutes.”
Lundqvist, caught in a bit of controversy following an alleged run-in with an Islanders Ice Girl on Tuesday as she tried to shovel snow from the crease, wasn’t bothered much in his return home by the Madison Square Garden sweepers or the Canadiens, who had won six of seven but fell for the eighth time in 10 road games.
He made 25 saves, with the best coming in the second period. Lundqvist did the splits near the left post to deny Michael Ryder, who got free in front, and then used the shaft of his stick to block a hard drive by Francis Bouillon in the closing seconds.
During TV timeouts, Lundqvist reassumed his usual head-down, concentrated pose, as the area around the net was cleared off without incident.
The only blemish for Lundqvist, who shut out the Canadiens at home on Feb. 27, was Souray’s record-setting power-play goal with 4:43 left. Souray set the man-advantage mark for NHL defenceman in a season with his 19th.
“It’s secondary right now,” he said. “Anything individual we’ll worry about at the end of the season. We have a common goal.”
Petr Prucha bounced back from a one-game benching by Renney and scored his fourth goal in nine games to break the scoreless tie in the opening frame. That sent New York on its way to its 13th win in 19 games (13-2-4). One of those regulation losses came in Montreal on March 27 when the Rangers blew a two-goal lead by giving up five in the second period and Lundqvist was pulled.
But even with the two-man disadvantage in the third that led to Souray’s goal, the Rangers held on.
The Canadiens replaced goalie Jaroslav Halak with former starter Cristobal Huet at the beginning of the third period after Halak allowed three goals on 25 shots. Huet made eight saves in his first appearance since missing 20 games with a hamstring injury.
Notes: Huet was activated from the injured list Tuesday, but was scratched in Montreal’s home win over Boston. … Rangers D Fedor Tyutin returned after sitting out 16 games because of a sprained knee ligament. Newly acquired D Jason Strudwick was scratched. Colton Orr sat out to make room for Prucha. … Canadiens captain Saku Koivu had scored Montreal’s three previous goals.