COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Derek Stepan stole the puck on a penalty kill and backhanded it into an empty net with 1:11 left for a 4-2 lead over the Blue Jackets on Monday night, a smile appeared behind Henrik Lundqvist’s mask.
The goal guaranteed two points that brought the Rangers to 97, which clinched a playoff berth for the sixth straight year.
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“It’s a great feeling, a proud feeling. We’re in,” Lundqvist said. “It hasn’t been pretty at times, at times it’s been great, but playing in this league, it’s a grind and it’s about finding ways to win games that can go either way. We’ll see who we’re going to face. This is the time of year when you really want to play hockey.”
But the victory was somewhat dampened by a right hand injury suffered by captain Ryan McDonagh, who stepped in front of Brandon Dubinsky’s one-timer at 14:47 of the first period. As soon as the puck struck, McDonagh dropped his stick. He was treated with ice on the bench and came on for another shift, but he didn’t return after the intermission.
“He’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’re in the process of discussing it, but there is a good chance we might call somebody up.”
For the first time in three games, the Rangers scored first. Chris Kreider backhanded in a rebound of his own shot at 6:17 for his 20th goal. Lundqvist received his fourth assist of the season on the play, firing the puck up to Stepan, who shouldered through the defense for the initial shot on Joonas Korpisalo.
“We were really locked in,” Lundqvist said, “that’s the feeling I had, the way we played in front of both nets. That’s the way we’re going to have to play moving forward.”
The Rangers made it 2-0 when Dan Boyle strolled down the right side and slipped a shot through the wickets of Korpisalo at 5:28 of the second.
Marc Staal got trucked by Nick Foligno, and after a whistle, went back at him and received two minutes for roughing. Seventeen seconds after the power play ended, Foligno tipped David Savard’s long wrister past Lundqvist at 14:41, cutting the lead to 2-1.
After Kreider blocked a shot in the neutral zone, he sped off on a two-on-one with Mats Zuccarello, who scored his 26th at 18:14.
In the third period, the Rangers had to battle to survive, fighting off Rick Nash’s penalty at 3:16. They also were fortunate when a shot hit the crossbar behind Lundqvist, but Foligno brought the Blue Jackets within one with 9:15 left. He curled around Kevin Klein near the right circle and his shot appeared to hit Boyle’s stick in front and deflect past Lundqvist.
Zuccarello went off for a high stick with 2:03 left and Korpisalo was pulled with 1:40 left.
The Rangers are three points behind the second-place Penguins and two points ahead of the Islanders (who have a game in hand) in the Metropolitan Division. They’re still thinking about overtaking Pittsburgh.
“In the third period, it was obvious we were a little nervous,” Vigneault said. “We knew there’s a lot on the line, Hank made the saves he had to make and we had a big kill near the end. It’s tough to get to the dance. With three games to go, we can still work for home ice, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”