It’s been five years since the Rangers last reached the postseason, but they’ll finally get to play playoff hockey again next month.
They officially ended their four-year rebuild Saturday night when they beat the Ottawa Senators, 5-1, at Madison Square Garden to clinch their first playoff spot since 2017.
Artemi Panarin had a goal and two spectacular assists and Chris Kreider continued his march to 50 goals, scoring Nos. 48 and 49 as the Rangers won their third straight.
Kreider is one goal away from joining elite company in Rangers history. The only Rangers to score 50 in a season are Jaromir Jagr (54 goals in 2005-06), Adam Graves (52 in 1993-94) and Vic Hadfield (50 in 1971-72).
The Rangers (47-20-6) have 100 points and are tied with the Hurricanes for first place in the Metropolitan Division (Carolina has a game in hand). The Rangers and Hurricanes have two games left against each other, the first of which is Tuesday at the Garden.
“You reach the 100-point mark, and you clinch a playoff spot, and the building was unreal tonight,’’ said Ryan Strome, who scored his 17th goal. “I think we’ve come a long way as a group, and this was one of our goals, starting the year and at the end of last year.”
The Rangers got the chance to clinch the spot for themselves when the Islanders beat Carolina on Friday night. Clinching at home was a better way to do it, coach Gerard Gallant said.
“I just thought we came ready to play, and . . . sometimes it doesn’t matter how you get in the playoffs, but it was nice the way we came to the rink wanting to win and get in the playoffs, and that’s what we did,’’ he said.
Kreider, the longest-tenured Ranger and one of only two players on the roster remaining from the last Rangers playoff team — linemate Mika Zibanejad is the other — said it was hard missing the playoffs so many years in a row.
In 2020, after the season was ended prematurely because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, the Rangers were one of 24 teams invited to the league’s restart in the Toronto bubble. But they were swept in three games in the preliminary round and never made it to the 16-team playoffs.
“It was obviously very difficult, sitting there and watching other teams play playoff hockey,’’ Kreider said. “Regular-season hockey is incredibly competitive, and it’s an honor to play in the NHL, it’s a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, I mean, you want to make playoffs and you want to accomplish that goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
“So I think it made this group incredibly hungry and incredibly focused.’’
But according to Kreider, feeling good about what they accomplished Saturday won’t last too long. With nine games left in the regular season, the Rangers are looking to finish first in the Metropolitan Division.
“We have Carolina next, right?’’ he said. “Enjoy it a little bit, be proud of ourselves. But we want home ice [in the playoffs]. We want to keep pushing, keep climbing.’’
“We’ve got nine games to get ready for, and finish as high [in the standings] as we can,’’ Gallant added. “Keep winning games and keep playing well.’’
The Rangers moved eight points ahead of the third-place Penguins. Saturday’s victory was their 26th comeback win, extending their franchise record.
Ottawa’s Austin Watson scored on the Senators’ first shot on goal against Igor Shesterkin (21 saves) at 2:22 of the first period. Panarin tied it at 12:32 of the period with his 21st goal.
Andrew Copp gave the Rangers the lead at 6:56 of the second period, roofing a wicked wrist shot from the right circle after Panarin threaded the needle with a precise cross-ice pass to find him. Kreider made it 3-1 with a shot from the left wing at 9:05 and Strome jammed in another delicious feed from Panarin to make it 4-1 at 17:27 of the second. Kreider closed the scoring at 17:31.