NEW YORK - The Eastern Conference playoff race isn't for the faint of heart. In the course of a night, a period, a shift, post-season hopes can go from likely to lousy.
The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens went head to head Tuesday night, and the fortunes of both changed in a heartbeat. Chris Drury scored a pair of goals and the Rangers took advantage of the Canadiens' careless defence and suspect goaltending for a 3-1 victory on Tuesday night.
If New York wins either of its two remaining games against the Philadelphia Flyers - starting at home Thursday night - the Rangers will be in the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
"We're probably not going to focus on clinching. We're just going to focus on playing a really good game and win," Henrik Lundqvist said after a 24-save effort.
The Rangers' playoff chances didn't look nearly as good just hours earlier when they limped home on a 1-3-1 skid and found themselves tied in points with the Florida Panthers at the post-season cutoff.
New York had a slight edge because of one more win.
By beating the Canadiens and getting help from the Flyers, who beat Florida 2-1, the Rangers can think about catching Montreal for seventh place instead of worrying about the ninth-place Panthers.
Drury gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead in the first period and stretched their advantage to 3-1 in the second with his 22nd goal. Canadiens defenceman Mike Komisarek coughed up the puck each time before the New York captain scored.
The Rangers (41-30-9) can even earn a playoff spot if the Panthers lose once in regulation time.
"It was a big night for us," Lundqvist said. "Going into this game we knew we had to win.
"We are going to go for it Thursday. It is a big game again. We have a great opportunity to play great now and go into the playoffs feeling really good."
Nik Antropov shook off a knee injury to get into the lineup and scored with a dive against goalie Carey Price, who played for the first time in four games following a bout with the flu and made 41 saves.
Canadiens defenceman Mathieu Dandenault scored for the second straight night in a losing cause.
New York rebounded from a 1-0 loss at Boston on Saturday and won at home for the seventh time in eight games. The Rangers did it with a dominant second period.
Montreal (41-29-10), playing without injured top defencemen Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider, lost for the second time in two nights and had its sizzling top line of Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay blanked.
The Canadiens gave up two goals to Ottawa's Dany Heatley 38 seconds apart late in the third period Monday to turn a lead into a 3-2 loss. Montreal could have earned a playoff spot with a win at New York.
"We can't get upset and pack it in now," Price said. "It's too important. The good news is, we get another chance to clinch. It's too bad it didn't work out tonight."
Price played a dump-in at the right post, and under pressure from charging forward Sean Avery, bounced a pass off the skate of defenceman Josh Gorges.
The puck went back through the vacated crease and sat there long enough for Antropov to make a headlong dive and poke it in like a cue shot 2:37 into the middle period.
"It's too bad it had to cost us the game," Price said. "I just misplayed it. I played it right off my defenceman. It's just a tough bounce. I should have just tried to play it safe and maybe shoot it off the wall."
The Rangers owned an 11-1 shots advantage less than midway through the frame and built a two-goal lead on Drury's second.
Ryan Callahan, honoured before the game with the team's extra effort award, showed why when he fought off Komisarek along the boards and nudged the puck ahead despite not having a stick.
Markus Naslund skated the puck into the Montreal end and zipped a shot that was deflected in by Drury.
"It seems like I am getting points on the board," said Callahan, who had two assists. "When you have guys like Dru and Nazzy with you, they bury it pretty good when you give them chances."
New York outshot Montreal 15-4 in the second period and 44-25 overall.
"For a road game, we got into the game well, but in the second period, the Rangers took control of the play," Canadiens coach Bob Gainey said.
Price, the starting all-star goalie for the Eastern Conference this season, had his head on a swivel for most of the night.
He glanced back at the left post several times after Drury beat him in the first period. Komisarek's clearing attempt hit Callahan, and the puck bounced free to Drury, who found a sliver of space between Price and the post to make it 1-0.
Dandenault lifted Montreal into a 1-1 tie with 3:04 left in the first.
Notes: The Rangers have scored only three goals in 40 power-play chances over eight games. ... Antropov has seven goals and five assists in 16 games since being traded to New York by Toronto. ... The Canadiens went 6-6-1 in the second half of back-to-back games.