Unlike last spring, the Rangers won't be sneaking up on other Stanley Cup contenders.

In fact, with the league's best record -- and equally successful home and away during the regular season -- opponents should be well prepared for the Presidents' Trophy winner.

Last season, the Blueshirts closed with a 6-2-2 record to finish with 96 points, just two ahead of the Flyers for second place in the Metropolitan Division and three ahead of both Eastern Conference wild-card teams (Blue Jackets and Red Wings). They had fewer points than all but one Western Conference playoff club -- the Stars, with 91. Then came the surprising run to the Final, after they eliminated the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens.

But in the last few weeks, head coaches from Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau to Dave Cameron of the surging Senators, who visit Madison Square Garden on Thursday night in a desperate attempt to grab a playoff spot, have praised the speed, depth and goaltending of the Rangers, describing them as one of the top teams in the league.

A positive mindset grew throughout the season, captain Ryan McDonagh said Tuesday: "We truly believed that we could win any game, with our preparation and habits. If we execute, and everyone does well in their roles, we can win any game."

And when the first round begins next week, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who will start Thursday night, will be rested and ready. Cam Talbot (with 21 wins) also is a better-prepared backup. "To do what I did in Hank's absence was great," Talbot said. "But he's the guy and hopefully he can lead us on another deep run this season."

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Home-ice advantage, for however long the Rangers survive, is another difference from last year's playoffs. In the four rounds, the Rangers had it once, against the Flyers. The conventional wisdom is that having a seventh game, if necessary, at home can be a huge edge, but McDonagh recently said that he believed having the first two games of each series at home is a plus.

Game 1 of the first round at the Garden is expected to be played Thursday, April 16; the playoffs begin on the 15th, but that is the Knicks' home finale.

The Rangers' opponent -- whichever team earns the second wild-card berth -- likely will not be determined until this weekend.

Notes & quotes: Two points against Ottawa, or in Washington on Saturday, or combined, would give the Rangers, who have won five straight, 113 points, the most in franchise history; the 1993-94 Cup champs amassed 112 . . . The team MVP, voted by the Rangers' media, and the Players' Player Award, voted by teammates since 1959, will be announced before 's game. McDonagh won both last season.