Rangers clinch second place and home ice in first round of playoffs

Benoit Pouliot celebrates with Anton Stralman #6 after

Benoit Pouliot celebrates with Anton Stralman #6 after scoring a second-period goal against the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden on April 10, 2014. (Credit: Mike Stobe)

After 81 games, the Rangers know where they will start the post-season — at home.

Rick Nash’s goal with just 1:42 left in regulation that salvaged a 2-1 win against the Sabres, the last-place team in the NHL, was the first of two steps Thursday toward home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs next week.

The Blueshirts secured home ice minutes later when the Flyers lost in Tampa 4-2, giving the Rangers second place in the Metropolitan Division with 95 points.

Whether they face the Flyers or Blue Jackets, who each have 91 points with two games to play, next week at Madison Square Garden, has yet to be determined. Game 1 is likely to be scheduled for Thursday. The Knicks play at home on Wednesday, when the playoffs begin. Game 2 is likely to be Saturday or Sunday.

“I don’t know if satisfied is the right word,” said Brad Richards, “but I’m happy. We felt good in here since the beginning of January.”

The come-from-behind win over the Sabres in a bizarre game of shot disparities guaranteed that the Rangers (45-31-5) would avoid the possibility of a  first-round matchup against the Bruins or Penguins.

Trailing 1-0, the tying goal for the Rangers came after a tape-to-tape backhand pass from Mats Zuccarello to Benoit Pouliot, who roofed his 15th goal past Hackett with 31 seconds left in the second period.It was the 18th shot of the period for the Rangers. The Sabres had only one -- and scored on it. Mike Weber's shot from the right point, which looked harmless, was deflected just inside the far post by Drew Stafford at 9:05.

“It’s frustrating when you have a hot goalie like that,” said Pouliot, who has  three goals and four assists in the last seven games. He credited his line, Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, who have jelled in the last third of the season. “They spread the play out pretty good and I just have to get somewhere and find a place,” he said.
Richards said that “once Ben scored, I felt we were in control again.”

But it was another rough start for a team with higher expectations. In an uninspired first period, the Rangers were outshot 12-9, with only six shots at even strength. Pouliot had the best chance, skating in alone on the right side at 7:30, but his wrister was blocked by Hackett.

The Rangers had no shots on Hackett for the first 6:38 and only one shot on a power play that began at 10:55 after Zemgus Girgensons went off for hooking. Lundqvist's toughest save came on a three-on-one when a sliding John Moore prevented a centering pass and Chris Stewart fired into Lundqvist, who was hugging the left post.

Christian Ehrhoff's slash in front when Hackett was covering the puck at 18:29 carried into the second. After scoring twice on the power play against Carolina, the Rangers overpassed rather than attacking Hackett, who was 1-4-1 entering the game.

The Rangers had their first shot of the third period with 6:21 left on Carl Hagelin’s wrister and were 0-for-4 overall on the power play against a team that had lost four straight and a goaltender who was 1-4-1 on the season. The Sabres, 3-14-1 since the March 5 trade deadline, had three power plays in the third, but the Rangers were rescued by Nash’s 26th goal, and also had some luck when a Sabres shot hit the post past Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves) with eight seconds left.

The Blueshirts have one final game in Montreal on Saturday, and it is very possible that Lundqvist will be rested and backup Cam Talbot (12-6, 1.67 GAA) will start in goal. Coach Alain Vigneault said after Thursday’s game that he had decided, but declined to name him because the goaltenders had not been informed.

“The first couple games it doesn’t matter, but to have a Game 7 at home, that feels pretty good,” Lundqvist said about the home-ice advantage. “The focus doesn’t change in the playoffs, road or at home, but the experience changes. You want to play as many games at home as possible.”

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