GREENBURGH, N.Y. - What the Rangers ought to like about the profound importance of their final regular-season weekend, their coach kept insisting Thursday, is the "opportunity."
A loss in regulation to the Philadelphia Flyers Friday night at Madison Square Garden and the Rangers will be out of the playoff picture. But that isn't how John Tortorella and his players are thinking. Because a victory (or overtime loss) against the Flyers Friday night will give the Rangers one more kick at the same can in Philadelphia on Sunday, and ultimately could punch the Rangers' ticket to the postseason.
The win-or-bust situation "is exciting," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "Probably, for about a month, we've had to approach every game like it's a playoff game. The last couple of weeks have been a physical and mental battle for us. But just never giving up, here we are. Down the stretch here" - going 6-1-1 in the last eight games - "we've really stepped up" while Philadelphia has clung perilously to one of the last playoff spots.
"The difference between us," Lundqvist said, "is we've been on the outside the whole time, and they've been on the inside."
But that, Tortorella said, shouldn't tie the Rangers in knots now. Nor the fact that Philadelphia's leading scorer, Jeff Carter, has returned to practice for the first time since fracturing a small bone in his foot March 21 and might play tonight.
"Athletes like playing games that have great meaning," Tortorella said. "Let's face it, during the season, it's a grind. This is an opportunity, and they should have fun with it."
For rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto, "this is so exciting. Every shift can mean us playing in the playoffs, and I've never been in the playoffs in the NHL. Every point is so important."
On March 23, the Rangers were seven points out of the last playoff spot with 10 games to play, certainly reason for them to doubt their Stanley Cup tournament possibilities. But "it's not so much doubt," Tortorella said. "It's a long road, and we had put ourselves in that position with inconsistency.
"I give the players credit for just staying with it. Now they've earned the opportunity - that's it, just an opportunity - but they've earned that. They're stayed with it. They haven't gotten tight. Now there's no long-term thing, and that changes the mind-set of the players.
"I'm not one to throw out a lot of compliments, but they should feel good about themselves. They've worked hard. They've stayed together; they've handled themselves well, mostly in the dressing room, because that's where it starts."