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Rangers look to lock up playoff spot vs. Hurricanes

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Alain Vigneault wants his squard to clinch its playoff berth as soon as possible.Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

Alain Vigneault wants his squard to clinch its playoff berth as soon as possible.

Alain Vigneault has spoken for weeks about the importance of getting a checkmark next to the Rangers’ name in the standings, ensuring another playoff berth before they focus on making another run at the Stanley Cup. They can finally clear that first hurdle on Thursday night.

The Rangers (43-24-9, 95 points) can clinch a playoff spot with a victory in regulation or overtime on Thursday at Carolina, Eric Staal’s first game against his former club since he arrived at the trade deadline. Because the Bruins (88 points) and Red Wings (87 points,) who each have five games left, play each other on April 7, one of those teams won’t be able to win all of its remaining games in regulation or overtime to leapfrog the Rangers for a potential wild-card spot if the Rangers reach 41 regulation/overtime wins, which serve as a tiebreaker.

“Obviously, you want to clinch as quick as you can,” Marc Staal said Wednesday after Rangers practice before the team joined Eric in Raleigh. “It’s a nice feeling to have.”

If the Rangers clinch Thursday, they’ll have five games to try to obtain home-ice advantage in the first round by getting the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division and work out the kinks before the playoffs begin.

“With a win tomorrow we can clinch, and that’s always been our first objective,” said Vigneault, who mentioned it was GM Jeff Gorton’s idea to allow Eric Staal to travel ahead of the team to spend time with his family.

“To be able to get into the playoffs, you have to play some good hockey. There’s no team that’s getting in that’s not playing well. We haven’t played well in all 76 (games) that we’ve played, but there’s been a real good portion where our hockey has been improving.”

Several scenarios remain in play for the Rangers over the final week-and-a-half of the season with the Eastern Conference playoff picture bunched up behind the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals. As things currently stand, they have a one-point lead over third-place Pittsburgh and a four-point advantage over the Islanders, who have a game in hand and play the Rangers at the Garden on April 7. Being the first wild-card team would mean a matchup against the Atlantic Division winner.

In short, getting caught up in potential matchups right now is futile.

“You try to stay away from it, but that’s definitely the natural thing to do,” Rick Nash said. “You just look at the points, things can jump each night. You really have to worry about yourselves and worry about your own team.”

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