GREENBURGH, N.Y. – It’s an old adage in sports that if you don’t believe you can and will win, no matter the odds, you might as well not play.
But what if circumstances are out of your hands? What then?
This was exactly the scenario the New York Rangers faced Saturday afternoon after they beat the New Jersey Devils 5-2 in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd that was jacked up for the regular-season finale and the playoff implications intertwined.
The win was good, but alone not enough to get the Rangers into the post-season following a one-year absence. New York still needed Carolina to lose its final game, a daunting hope because of how well the Hurricanes played down the stretch and the fact their opponent—the Tampa Bay Lightning—was securely in the playoffs with nothing on the line.
“It felt like the season was over—honestly,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist said Monday. “I didn’t have a lot of hope because we didn’t get a lot of help the last month. It felt like they were all winning behind us.
“Even when (the Lightning) were up 4-0, I thought they would lose. When I finally knew we were in, I started right away thinking about Washington and what they bring and what I have to do to help this team to win.”
Yes, Saturday’s late save gave the Rangers the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference against the top-seeded Washington Capitals, who had the NHL’s best record last season but were knocked out right away by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in seven games.
The Capitals are known for high-flying scorers such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, but after a mid-season slide, they began to buy into the idea that it’s going to take defence to win. That change sparked a surge that vaulted the Capitals past Philadelphia to the top spot in the East.
Washington struggled against the Rangers in the regular season, losing three of four, including drubbings of 7-0 and 6-0. None of that matters now, especially when New York was still relishing in the good fortune they received Saturday night.
“They deserved to be in,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “The hockey gods don’t screw around with you that often. I thought what happened was supposed to happen. We’re just fortunate we have a chance to keep on playing.”
Not everyone was in a gloom-and-doom mood like Lundqvist when players gathered to watch the Lightning and Hurricanes determine their fate. But everyone agreed that the toughest part of Saturday was the wait. The Rangers finished off the Devils around 3 p.m. and then had to kill time before the other game began four hours later.
“It was mixed emotions,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said. “You’ve still got that hope to hang on to. It goes both ways. There are minutes when it kind of feels like the season is over and then there are times when you feel confident and that we deserve better, we deserve to get there, so it’s going to work out for us.”
That it did.
New York’s most recent playoff appearance was a first-round matchup with the Capitals two years ago, a series the Rangers led 3-1 but lost in seven games. The Rangers then lost in a shootout in Philadelphia on the final day of last season, when a win would have put them into the playoffs.
Although the Rangers had disappointing losses late this season to non-playoff teams Ottawa, the New York Islanders, and Atlanta in the second-to-last game that put them on the brink of elimination, they finished 11-4-1 in their final 16 games.
That stretch included wins over Philadelphia and Boston, the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the East, and put the Rangers in the playoffs by two points instead of being one short like last year.
“The biggest thing that we’re taking from that is the opportunity to go in as an underdog, and the eighth seed, and try to make some noise,” Dubinsky said. “We feel pretty good and confident about the group of guys that we have and the team that we have. I think that makes it the most exciting.”
The closeness and bonding on this team of young players stood out to Tortorella, who watchedthe Lightning-Hurricanes game along with his son at the Rangers’ practice facility.
After the win over the Devils, Tortorella defiantly said he wouldn’t watch—a statement he admitted was a lie all along. He watched every minute and was proud of his team for sticking together during that time.
“It’s terrific. That’s camaraderie,” he said. “We’re a confident group. Our mindset is right, our attitude is right. We shouldn’t feel (pressure) at all. We should go play. We deserve to be here. We’re going to relax and try to play the right way and see where we go.”