OTTAWA - It had been inevitable for a few weeks, but after cooling off goalie Andrew Hammond and the red-hot Senators, 5-1, last night, the Rangers clinched a Stanley Cup playoff berth for the fifth straight season.
The Rangers (101 points), who have nine games remaining, can start thinking about postseason positioning.
"You start off each year and your first goal is to make the playoffs," said Derek Stepan, who set up both of Chris Kreider's goals in the first period as the Rangers took a 3-1 lead. "Goal number two is to get home ice. We checked one off early, but we've got to continue to play and do the right things."
Last season, the Rangers compiled only 96 points before going on their run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Said Marc Staal, "It's a little different than the last few years when we were grinding it out to the end, so it's a good feeling. Now we want to finish as high as we can in the standings. It's a great accomplishment."
The Metropolitan Division-leading Rangers moved eight points ahead of the Islanders and have two games in hand. In the Eastern Conference standings, the Rangers are one point ahead of Montreal and two points ahead of Tampa Bay and have two games in hand on each. It is only the eighth time in franchise history that the Rangers have posted at least 100 points.
Hammond, nicknamed the Hamburglar for two reasons -- he entered the game 14-0-1 and the image of the McDonald's character is on his mask -- was blitzed for three goals in the first period and five on 22 shots before he was removed late in the second period.
"Probably we caught their goaltender on an off night," coach Alain Vigneault said, "and we were able to capitalize early, and once we got the lead, I thought we played pretty well."
Cam Talbot (23 saves) earned his 20th victory of the season. The Rangers haven't had two goalies win at least 20 games since 1991-92 (John Vanbiesbrouck 27, Mike Richter 23). Henrik Lundqvist (25-11-3) is expected to play this weekend.
Mats Zuccarello made it 4-1 at 1:42 of the second, beating Hammond on Kevin Hayes' feed from the left side on a two-on-one. The Rangers then kept the Senators from getting organized in the offensive zone, using sticks and blocks to break up passes, and went 6-for-6 on the penalty kill.
The Senators were held without a shot in the second period until they went on the power play at 10:02 when Rick Nash was whistled for a trip. It was the first penalty called in the game, and the Senators managed only two shots on goal. But Nash was sent off again, this time for elbowing, at 12:31. Then, with Tanner Glass off for slashing, the Senators didn't have a shot for 34 seconds of a five-on-three. The Rangers killed the remaining time down a man before Glass came out of the penalty box to score the dagger with his first goal of the season.
Kreider gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead at 12:38, collecting a bank pass from Stepan off the left boards and streaking in to beat Hammond short-side at 12:38. Curtis Lazar tied it 19 seconds later on a turnover by Keith Yandle, but Dan Boyle, who hadn't scored in 18 games, cut to the net, took a pass from Nash and scored at 14:40.
Kreider scored his second goal -- his 20th of the season -- late in the first period to make it 3-1. "It's a step in the right direction," he said. "We've got a long way to go."
The puck bounced up and behind Hammond, and Kreider bulled in to shoved the puck across the line at 19 minutes. He became the first Ranger to have three points in a period on the road since Vinny Prospal on March 12, 2010.