Sunday, June 23, 2024

Rangers seeking bigger prizes after checking off first playoff goal

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First things first, Mika Zibanejad was saying after the Rangers became the first team in the NHL to clinch a playoff spot by virtue of Tuesday’s wild and zany 6-5 overtime triumph over the Flyers at the Garden.

As in first place.

“Carolina has won the division, what, three years in a row?” No. 93 asked rhetorically. “We want it.

“With all the work we’ve put in this season, we’re right there and we want to win the division. Of course.”

There are 10 games to go and the division lead is three points over Carolina — with a game in hand — following the ’Canes defeat in Pittsburgh that served as a reminder that there is a reason teams actually play the games.

The benefit that accrues to a division winner is simply the guarantee of home-ice advantage through the second round, but there would be a psychological factor likely far more meaningful than a Game 7 at the Garden if the Rangers can close this out.

The Rangers have won three in a row and five out of six in extending the heater they have been on since the game before the All-Star break. After opening the season 18-4-1, they are 19-4-1 since Jan. 27.

They have overcome the season-long absence of Filip Chytil and the season-ending injury sustained by Blake Wheeler in the middle of February. They navigated through Igor Shesterkin’s dicey winter. They are now playing without three of their six regular defensemen.

Yet, they have persevered.

Mika Zibanejad (right), celebrates with Vincent Trocheck after scoring a goal during the Rangers' 6-5 playoff-clinching OT win over the Flyers.

Mika Zibanejad (right), celebrates with Vincent Trocheck after scoring a goal during the Rangers’ 6-5 playoff-clinching OT win over the Flyers. Robert Sabo / New York Post

Yet, they have prospered.

And they are in the playoffs for the third straight season and 15th of 19 in the hard-cap era, missing only in 2010, 2018, 2019 and 2021. Yes, 16 teams get in every year so that might not seem much of an accomplishment but — hello — Buffalo has been out since 2011, the Senators have been out since 2017, and sometimes a rebuild does not include the ability to sign Artemi Panarin and trade for Jacob Trouba.

This matches the 2011-12 Black-and-Blueshirts for the franchise’s earliest clinch in the hard-cap era that commenced in 2005-06. This is a luxury for the club and for head coach Peter Laviolette, whose hiring in the aftermath of Gerard Gallant’s dismissal was derided in many quarters and greeted with retread fatigue and skepticism in others.

“Based on the season we’ve had, at some point there is an assumption that you’re going to get in and so it’s not about that anymore,” Laviolette said after chalking up the 800th victory of his NHL coaching career. “It’s about playing the right way and feeling good about your game as you approach the playoffs.”

Igor Shesterkin makes a sprawling save during the Rangers' win.

Igor Shesterkin makes a sprawling save during the Rangers’ win. Robert Sabo / New York Post

The Flyers, hanging on to a spot, were desperate throughout this game that had more than a touch of pond hockey to it. Laviolette broke up the lines during the second period, using both Artemi Panarin — who had three assists to elevate him over the 100-point barrier to 102 — and Alexis Lafreniere on lines centered by Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck. Kaapo Kakko moved around. Will Cuylle did not get a lot of ice in the third period. Matt Rempe got none as the coach cut down the bench.

Zibanejad played with impressive zip in this one, wiring one in on the power play for just his second with the man-advantage in the last 15 games. Lafreniere scored twice in the third period to boost his career high to 22 goals.

“It’s hard and making the playoffs for sure is a step in the right direction for us,” said No. 13. “But there’s still a lot of work to do and we know that.”

Laviolette bumped Jack Roslovic to the left on Trocheck’s line for a number of shifts in the third when Panarin was up with Zibanejad and either Lafreniere or Chris Kreider. It appeared as if the head coach was running a lab through which he might experiment the rest of the way.

But perhaps not after hearing Laviolette tell it.

“I think something fresh can be a good thing,” the head coach said. “If there’s the same thing for a month and then on the 32nd day it’s different, there can be a little bit of excitement.

“But for me, I think I’d rather stick with what we’ve done. I don’t want to change too much after the year has gone in a direction we’d be happy with to this point. I don’t want to move things around just to try things.

The Rangers mob Adam Fox after his game-winning OT goal gave the Blueshirts a 6-5 win over the Flyers and also clinched a playoff berth.

The Rangers mob Adam Fox after his game-winning OT goal gave the Blueshirts a 6-5 win over the Flyers and also clinched a playoff berth. Robert Sabo / New York Post

“I’d like to get back to what we know and what we know works.”

The Rangers have worked to become the first team to 100 points and the first team to make the playoffs. It has been a bravura performance by this team that seemed adrift immediately following last spring’s first-round defeat to the Devils. They lead the Metro by three points and lead the league by one point over the Bruins, who have only nine to go.

“I don’t know that there was much of a celebration but this is what every team is fighting for,” said Zibanejad. “I would say we have bigger goals but if you want to lift the Stanley Cup, you’ve got to get into the playoffs first.”

Done.

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