The Rangers zeroed in on not only clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference but earning the Presidents' Trophy Monday night with an improbable 4-3 overtime victory over the red-hot Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden.
Rangers center Derek Stepan scored the tying goal with 27.5 seconds left in regulation and the winning goal with 49.6 seconds left in overtime.
"Our best period tonight was the third period and we find ourselves down by a goal; I'd like to say we drew it up that way," coach Alain Vigneault said. "[Stepan] and [Chris] Kreider stepped up at the right time."
Ryan McDonagh criticized his team's play in its own zone but added: "We did a good job of putting pressure on them six-on-five [with Henrik Lundqvist pulled near the end of regulation]. You try to get something down toward the net and take it into overtime and let Step do the rest."
Stepan, like McDonagh a University of Wisconsin grad, laughed off the suggestion that he didn't want the game to go to a shootout because he would miss more of the NCAA basketball final (in which Duke beat Wisconsin).
"In order to have success in the playoffs, you have to be able to handle ebbs and flows in the games and you have to be able to respond when your game's not quite there," said Stepan, who also had an assist.
With the Rangers trailing 3-2 on Brandon Dubinsky's goal at 8:14 of the third, Stepan beat Sergei Bobrovsky from the left circle after a pass from Kreider for the tying goal. Then he won it with his 16th goal on a similar shot, this time on a feed from Keith Yandle.
The victory gave the Rangers 51 wins, a league-leading 109 points and the opportunity to clinch the Eastern Conference title with one point in New Jersey Tuesday night. Two points secures the Presidents' Trophy, which Vigneault won twice in Vancouver. Including Tuesday night, the Rangers have three games to play.
"Coming into this season, most of the experts had us playing for a playoff spot," Vigneault said, "and if we were being honest with ourselves, we weren't quite sure what our team was going to look like. We had lost some important pieces and we were hoping some of the kids were going to be able to step in and play. They got better as the season went on and some of our young players who were here last season, like Chris Kreider, improved their play."
The Rangers led 1-0 and 2-1 but the Blue Jackets, who had won nine straight, were officially eliminated from playoff contention a week ago and had nothing to lose. Lundqvist (29 saves) had to stop a half-dozen point-blank looks, including breakaways by Ryan Johansen and Cody Goloubef.
Martin St. Louis scored in the first period and Matt Calvert tied it on a steal from McDonagh. Dan Girardi drifted into the lower right circle, took a cross-ice pass from Stepan and beat Bobrovsky (38 saves) on the short side for a 2-1 lead 36 seconds into the second period. Marko Dano's rebound of Artem Anisimov's shot tied it again at 14:22 of the second.
"In the end, it comes down to making the big plays at the right time,'' Lundvist said. "And we did.''