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For NHL-best Rangers, the real work begins in playoffs

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Presidents’ Trophy or not, the Rangers know that their historic regular season will be meaningless if they fail to advance in the playoffs.

The Rangers accomplished every regular-season goal they could, securing the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time since 1993-94 and setting franchise records for wins (53) and points (113.)

That’s all in the past now. It’s on to Season Two, as Marc Staal described the playoffs. The Rangers’ quest to get back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year and win for the first time since ’94 begins Thursday at the Garden when they host the limping Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

“I think everybody understands how hard it is and how much work you have to put in and how dedicated you have to be with everything, your preparation and the way you play and commitment to reach that,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “We’re all looking forward to that and we put everything out there to try to reach that opportunity again to play in the Final. But let’s start with the first round. And I don’t think it’s gonna be a difference to try to win the first round compared to the third round. Teams are so ready to get things going right away.”

The Penguins (43-27-12, 98 points) had the Rangers on the ropes in last year’s conference semifinals with a 3-1 advantage through four games. Between Games 4 and 5, Martin St. Louis’ mother died of a heart attack, but St. Louis rejoined the team for Game 5, one day after his mother’s death. The Rangers won three straight games to win the series.

This year’s Pittsburgh team is clearly not the same as last year’s Metropolitan Division-winning squad. It was one of the worst teams in the NHL down the stretch, going 4-9-2 in its final 15 games.

It’s a more favorable matchup for the Rangers than the Boston Bruins would have been. Fortunately for the Blueshirts, the Bruins were eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday, the last day of the regular season, with victories by Pittsburgh over Buffalo and Detroit over Carolina.

The winner of Rangers-Penguins will play the winner of the Islanders-Capitals series, which begins Wednesday in Washington.

“We understand now it’s a little different animal to prepare,” Ryan McDonagh said. “We realize you’ve got to raise your level. We don’t need to flip the switch on the style that we play. We’ve got to continue to play well defensively, get to our strengths and use our speed, and it’s about just getting out there and executing now.”

Several players like McDonagh and St. Louis are finding their games at the right time, but also fourth-line center Dominic Moore has four goals in his last six games. Moore was a critical part of getting the Rangers to the Cup Final last spring, when both Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan missed time due to injuries and Brad Richards faltered late in the postseason.

Midseason acquisition Keith Yandle is also hitting his stride with 10 points over his last 12 games, and he’s been impressed by the talent surrounding him.

“I feel good, especially getting ready for the playoffs,” Yandle said. “Since I got here I’ve been in awe of how good this team is and what we can accomplish.”

The Rangers had off on Sunday and has off again Monday. They’ll practice Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for Game 1. The series begins Thursday and will be played every other day throughout.

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