The preliminaries are over. For teams that had clinched postseason berths, two weeks of games that featured extras and AHLers mercifully have concluded. The main event starts this week and runs into June.
First up for the Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs: the Montreal Canadiens, starting at Bell Centre. The series will begin Wednesday, continue Friday in Montreal and move to the Garden on Sunday for Game 3.
“You throw out all the stats in the regular season because it’s been proven that any team can win no matter the seeding,” captain Ryan McDonagh said after the Rangers ended the regular season with a 3-2 win over the Penguins on Sunday night at the Garden. “You never know when you’re going to get another opportunity, and that’s the message we’ve got to send here: Leave it all out there, no regrets.”
Sunday night’s finale was similar to the last handful of games, as the Rangers used a mishmash lineup and rested key players. So did the Penguins.
Just check the goaltending duo: The Rangers gave Magnus Hellberg, who had played a grand total of 51 minutes in three games since the 2013-14 season, his first NHL start because scheduled starter Antti Raanta had a bruised knee. Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry, 21, hadn’t even appeared in an NHL game.
The Rangers prevailed, with the winner coming when Mika Zibanejad fed Jimmy Vesey for a backhand that broke a 2-2 tie at 7:23 of the third period. Hellberg finished with 22 saves.
The Rangers finished the season with 102 points, tied with the 1972-73 team for the seventh most in franchise history.
The game ended a successful campaign for the Rangers, who were ousted by the Penguins in five games in the first round last season. With an infusion of younger players, the Blueshirts went 14-5-1 in the first quarter of the season, scoring at a breakneck pace and leading the league in goals per game. They were impressive on the road (27-12-2) but faltered at home (21-16-4), raising questions of consistency, especially on defense.
Whether the Rangers can turn the tide against the Canadiens is unclear. Except for Henrik Lundqvist’s improved play, nothing should be drawn from recent games, including against Pittsburgh, which didn’t dress Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Rangers rested Lundqvist, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast and Brendan Smith.
“In the last few games, we accomplished what we wanted to do,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “We’re going into the playoffs as healthy as a team can be at this time of year. Come the morning, what happened so far for each and every player, the page is turned and everybody’s got a clean slate.”
McDonagh, who sat out four games with what was believed to be a lower-body injury, returned to play 21:08 and had a goal and an assist. McDonagh, who was voted team MVP by his teammates, showed no signs of rust. In the first period, he skated through the neutral zone and snapped a wrister from the top of the left circle that beat Jarry stick-side to tie the score at 1,
McDonagh said of Montreal, “They’re a big team. They’re probably going to play similar to us, a north-south game, and try and not give you that much ice and time in the d-zone. It’s going to be a battle in front of both nets.”
Notes & quotes: In an annual fan vote, Mats Zuccarello was named the recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award for the third time in four years. The award, presented in an emotional on-ice ceremony, honors the former New York City detective who was shot in the line of duty in 1986. It is given to the player who goes “above and beyond the call of duty.” . . . Fast was given the Players’ Player Award by his teammates for the second straight year.
Stanley Cup Playoff Matchups
Montreal (103 points) vs. Rangers (100)
Washington (118) vs. Toronto (95)
Pittsburgh (111) vs. Columbus (106)
Ottawa (98) vs. Boston (95)
Chicago (109) vs. Nashville (94)
Minnesota (104) vs. St. Louis (97)
Anaheim (103) vs. Calgary (94)
Edmonton (99) vs. San Jose (97)