ANAHEIM, Calif. — For the last few weeks, the questions for the Rangers regarding the Stanley Cup playoffs have included not “if,” but “when.”
On this California trip, the answers have crystalized. The “checkmark,” as Alain Vigneault is fond of saying, next to the team name in the NHL standings that denotes clinching a berth, is so close that the players can taste it.
Consider: Entering Sunday’s game against the Ducks, the second of a back-to-back set after the 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, the Rangers were on the cusp of reaching the postseason tournament for the seventh consecutive season and 11th in their last 12.
The magic number was two points: Simply put, a win and they’d be in.
“One game can change things,” forward Jesper Fast said late Saturday. “Now you hope we can go on a good run heading into the playoffs.”
With Henrik Lundqvist making his first appearance on Sunday since he strained a hip muscle on March 17 against the Florida Panthers, and with the Rangers managing just 20 shots against the Kings, it appeared that Vigneault might make multiple changes upfront. He didn’t.
Only defenseman Kevin Klein, who had missed 15 games with back spasms, drew into the lineup for the first time since then, replacing Dan Girardi, who played 20:09 on Saturday in his return from an ankle injury.
“Not an easy situation with that type of injury, where you don’t skate much,” Vigneault said. “If you look at [Saturday’s] game, both Danny and Ryan [McDonagh] spent a lot a time in our own end, so I think this is a smarter way to go. I like how most of the lines played. After this stretch [three games in four nights], we’ll be able to work on a few things with the guys that haven’t played much.”
Should the Ducks temporarily deny the Blueshirts the “checkmark,” these road warriors, who entered Sunday leading the NHL with 27 wins away from home — have another opportunity on Tuesday in San Jose, regardless of how the Islanders fare.
Only four teams have earned more wins away from home in one season: the Detroit Red Wings in 2005-06 (31), the Rangers in 2014-15 (28), the Devils in 1998-99 (28), and the San Jose Sharks in 2015-16 (28).
With only three road games left — on Tuesday, then in Washington on April 5 and Ottawa on April 8 — the Blueshirts won’t break the Wings’ all-time record. But they could reach second place, an impressive accomplishment.
And with six games remaining, they are certainly within striking distance of 100 points the 10th time in franchise history, and within range of passing last’s year’s number, 101.
“We’ve played really well this season to put ourselves in a situation where we still need to get better, but we have a little bit of a cushion,” said Derek Stepan, whose 14th goal on Saturday was his 50th point, a level he has reached for four straight seasons.
“We have a great opportunity on this trip against teams that are fighting for their playoff livesI don’t like putting must-wins on anything, but we need to put a great effort out there. I think there’s a huge importance on this road trip to get as many points as we can out of six.”