Rangers center Mika Zibanejad looks on before a face off...

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad looks on before a face off against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, April 3, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s been five years since the Rangers last played in a playoff game. But they will return to the postseason next month, officially ending the rebuilding period the team went through beginning with The Letter, which management sent to the fans in February of 2018, announcing the organization’s intentions.

The Islanders’ win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday gave the Rangers an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot Saturday night in front of their fans with a win over the Ottawa Senators. Should they lose, a postseason berth is still inevitable because there are nine games left after Saturday.

For Mika Zibanejad – who, with Chris Kreider are the only two players remaining on the Rangers from that last playoff team – returning to the playoffs will be a satisfying end to a long journey.

“Every year when you play, you aim for the playoffs. You aim to win,’’ Zibanejad said after Friday’s practice. “It's been worth the wait. And it's been fun to be here, even though there's been a couple tough years, or however you want to call it. It's a fun thing to be a part of the solution.’’

The Rangers’ rebuild has worked to near perfection. The club’s previous management, former GM Jeff Gorton and former team president John Davidson, re-stocked the team’s prospects cupboard and methodically built up the roster. Current president/GM Chris Drury has added a few final pieces, including hiring coach Gerard Gallant, to finish the job of getting the team back to the playoffs and in contention for a Stanley Cup. A win over the Senators would clinch a playoff spot and pull them into a tie with Carolina for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Zibanejad, who turns 29 on April 18, was in his first season with the Rangers in 2016-17 when they last made the playoffs. He’d been acquired by the Rangers from Ottawa in the summer of 2016, coming to Broadway along with a second-round pick in 2018 in exchange for Derick Brassard and a seventh-round pick in 2018. Ottawa had missed the playoffs in 2016, and hired a new GM in Pierre Dorion. They wanted to push to make the playoffs in 2017, so they were willing to give up the young Zibanejad for the proven Brassard.

The Senators did make the playoffs that year, and won two rounds -- beating the Rangers in the second round -- before losing in seven games to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference final.

But in the long term, Zibanejad went on to become the Rangers’ best player in the rebuilding era. He scored a career-high 41 goals and 75 points in the COVID-shortened season of 2019-20 and entered Saturday two points shy of that career points figure, and with a career-high 46 assists.

The Rangers assembled a team around Zibanejad and Kreider over the last four years, adding players like Ryan Strome, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Artemi Panarin and prospects Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller. Igor Shesterkin had already been drafted by the club, but he came over to North America in 2019 and has ascended to take over from Henrik Lundqvist as the franchise goaltender.

The Rangers entered Saturday with a 46-20-6 record, and their 98 points were tied with Toronto for fourth-most in the league.

“It's gone pretty good in my estimate,’’ Gallant said of the Rangers’ season overall. “I said earlier in the year I didn't think we were playing as good a hockey as we could have played, but we still had a good record at that time. I think we played some really good hockey the last 20 or 30 games, and it shows, and I think our team's getting better, a month at a time.’’

And next month, they’ll be in the playoffs.

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