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New York Rangers ride surge into the playoffs for second straight year

"The first 40, 50 games we didn't play to our potential," Jagr said Thursday after the Rangers clinched a playoff berth. "We thought we were easily going to make the playoffs. It was a huge wake-up call when the coaches told us we had to win 22 of 34.

"We're not the Dallas Mavericks," he added. "It would be easy for them, but it wasn't easy for us."

Tell that to the Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders. All were ahead of the Rangers two months ago, yet heading into the final weekend of the regular season none had secured a spot.

The Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes already know they won't get a chance to defend their title. The Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Islanders are contending for the last opening.

New York has gone 17-5-5 since a shootout loss at New Jersey on Feb. 6, the day agitating spark plug Sean Avery made his Rangers debut following a trade with Los Angeles.

"Our goal was to make the playoffs, but now our other goal is to just go as far as you can go," said Jagr, who scored four goals in four games to reach 30 for the 15th straight season. "Last year we lost in the playoffs in four games. Now I think we're good enough to do some damage."

The Rangers will be the sixth or seventh seed. Sixth means a meeting with Tampa Bay or Atlanta, whichever wins the Southeast Division.

Seventh would set up a rematch with the New Jersey Devils, who beat them four straight in the first round last year.

That New York club was banged up. This one is getting healthy.

Jagr was limited to two games of the series because of a major shoulder injury that still hampered him this season. But he is strong now and producing as usual.

Henrik Lundqvist has been the key. He is 8-1-1 in his last 10 games, and 16-3-6 with a 1.72 goals-against average in a 25-game span.

New York coach Tom Renney said the team is going to Pittsburgh with the full intention of winning Saturday's final regular-season game and securing the No. 6 seed. So expect Lundqvist in goal for the 45th time in 46 games.

Despite the work, the second-year goalie is healthy - unlike last year when a sore hip and migraine headaches had him off his game down the stretch when the Rangers lost their final nine contests.

Brendan Shanahan has gotten significantly sharper in the eight games he has played since returning from a concussion that forced him to miss over a month.

The addition of the three-time Stanley Cup champion along with Matt Cullen, a winner last year with Carolina, made the Rangers believe they were set up to make a run, too. That all changed with an 18-17-4 start that was capped by a seven-game losing streak in December.

"Two months ago I started thinking about it," Jagr said of the dwindling playoff chances. "We didn't play the way to win. Lately we've played the way to win."

The Rangers closed their home schedule with by winning nine of 11 at home (9-1-1), including the final five. They have earned points in 17 of 19 overall (13-2-4).

"I'm optimistic," Renney said. "I love the karma of the team right now and the synergy in general. They certainly deserve to be where they are but we have a lot of work to do. This city wants a champion and we're going to do everything we can to deliver that."

One fan made his wishes known Thursday before the opening faceoff. Steven McDonald, a New York police officer paralyzed in the line of duty 20 years ago, presented an annual extra-effort award named for him. He told of how players visited him in the hospital after he was shot, spurring his fight to live.

"Tonight, I'm leaving them with a challenge," he said to cheers throughout Madison Square Garden. "Win."


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