GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Rangers got Sunday off to enjoy the warm feeling of having clinched their first playoff berth in five years with Saturday’s 5-1 win over Ottawa. On Monday, they were back to work, prepping for their next challenge: the battle to finish first in the Metropolitan Division.
Gerard Gallant’s men are two points behind the division leaders, the Carolina Hurricanes, with nine games remaining in the regular season. The Rangers and Hurricanes will play each other twice in that span, with the first meeting Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
So the Metropolitan Division title is there to be had, and it is a goal for the team, Gallant said. He said it’s not a must-have, though.
“The bigger picture’s down the road,’’ Gallant said after practice Monday. “It should be two teams ready to play tomorrow night for first place, and that’s going to be really exciting. And [we’ll] see where it goes.
“Now if you had a disappointing result tomorrow night, it’s not the end of the world.’’
There’s value in chasing a goal to keep the team mentally and physically sharp in the final nine games, Gallant said. But he also made it clear that the greatest priority now is making sure the team is ready for the playoffs.
That means if there are players with various bumps and bruises who might benefit from some rest during the season’s final three weeks, they’ll get that rest.
“We’re going to do what’s right for our team,’’ Gallant said.
He pointed out that the battle for second place in the division is not over yet.
The Rangers lead Pittsburgh by six points and have a game in hand on the Penguins.
The teams that finish second and third in the division will face each other in the first round of the playoffs, with the second-place team holding home ice advantage in that series.
Defenseman Jacob Trouba didn’t sound as if he is all that fired up about winning the division title.
“I think it’s more wanting to play well and continue to win games,’’ he said. “You don’t want to get complacent and say you’re in and kind of coast and not be ready to play.
“You want to stay at the top of your game. And in order to do that, you’ve got to win hockey games. And we want to keep winning games. And if that puts us in first place, that puts us in first place.’’
The Rangers (47-20-6) and Hurricanes (47-18-8) have faced each other twice this season, with both games played in Raleigh, North Carolina. They split the two games, with Alexandar Georgiev starting in goal for the Rangers in both.
Carolina won the first meeting, 6-3, on Jan. 21, and the Rangers won, 2-0, on March 20, with Georgiev making 44 saves.
After Tuesday, the final meeting between the teams will be April 26.
Filip Chytil, who missed Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury, returned to practice Monday.
Defenseman Patrik Nemeth did not practice for personal reasons, the Rangers said.