Mats Zuccarello puts the Rangers up 3-1 en route to a playoff berth Monday night.
COLUMBUS — First the Rangers lost three straight. The Rangers’ playoff clinching Monday night was characteristically complicated, nerve-racking and bittersweet, mirroring a 97-points-and-counting season that hasn’t often felt like it.
They sealed their 10th playoff berth in 11 seasons and third in three seasons under Alain Vigneault with a 4-2 victory over ex-coach John Tortorella’s woeful Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan led the way with a goal and an assist apiece, and Mats Zuccarello scored fortunate goal off his own blocked pass for the one-goal lead that Stepan sealed with a late empty-netter.
“It’s a great feeling, a proud feeling that we’re in,” Henrik Lundqvist (27 saves) said after holding the fort in what Vigneault called a “nervous” third period. “It hasn’t been pretty at times. At times it’s been great. But playing in this league it’s a grind. We were locked in tonight. It’s just a really good feeling.”
The franchise’s 58th-ever playoff berth may have come at a heavy price.Captain Ryan McDonagh injured his right hand blocking former teammate Brandon Dubinsky’s power-play slap shot at 14:47 of the first, did not return for the final two periods, and could be out long-term.
A tight-lipped Vigneault said McDonagh, 26, would be “re-evaluated” for an “upper-body” injury, but the coach admitted he may call up a defenseman for Tuesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Garden with three regular-season games to play.
McDonagh’s hand had to be seriously injured for him to leave the game. This is the second-year captain who played “a couple games” of last spring’s Eastern Conference finals on a broken right foot. Teammates weren’t letting on if they knew his status, but they aren’t naïve, either.
Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh doesn’t return to the ice after taking a blocked shot off his hand.
“It’s a big piece,” Stepan said. “But as hard as it is and as big of a piece as he is to our group, we have to just have guys step in and pick up bigger roles.”
In McDonagh’s absence, Kevin Klein had to play his off left-side Monday and was beaten wide on Jackets captain Nick Foligno’s second goal 10:45 into the third period.
McDonagh hasn’t had a good year by his standards, but he is the team’s best defenseman and has helped foster a culture of belief.
The Blueshirts did not fold after losing three straight last week, including 4-3 defeats to non-playoff teams Carolina and Buffalo with chances to clinch.
“Down the stretch, this is our team. This is what we’re going to go to war with,” McDonagh said Monday morning. “There is a lot of confidence in this room, even through the ups and downs. We’ve had a lot of playoff experiences, and in those seven-game series, we know it’s not as much about your opponents as much as how you’re playing.”
Henrik Lundqvist stops 29 shots on Monday night.
Vigneault said the third-seed Rangers (44-26-9, 97 points, three to play) are still eyeing home-ice advantage, which would mean reclaiming the Metropolitan Division’s second seed from the red-hot Penguins (100 points, three to play).
“We’ve really got to focus on ramping ourselves up to playing our best hockey,” Stepan said. “We’ve got to get better in all areas of the game.”
But the Islanders (43-26-9, 95 points), who beat the Lightning, 5-2, are simultaneously threatening to drag the Rangers into their current first wild-card spot. That will depend heavily on the rivals’ final must-see showdown Thursday night at the Garden.