Eric Staal goes down in the second period Saturday afternoon.
The Rangers couldn’t get through Saturday afternoon’s regular season finale without losing another starter to an injury that could impact their playoff lineup for next week’s first round.
Trade deadline acquisition Eric Staal was clipped inadvertently in the head by teammate Jesper Fast as Staal was bent toward the ice just after taking a face-off 18:09 into the second period.
Staal crumpled to the ice and was down on his stomach for a while before rising slowly with the help of trainer Jim Ramsay and leaving the Rangers’ 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings at the Garden for good.
GM Jeff Gorton acquired Staal from Carolina on Feb. 28 specifically to get a veteran and former Stanley Cup winner who could create matchup problems for opponents and make game-changing plays in the playoffs.
The Rangers, who finished with a final regular season mark 46-27-9 for 101 total points, have to be holding their breath that the apparent injury to Staal’s head and/or neck is not a long-term issue — which is a case-by-case basis when head injuries and/or concussions are part of the diagnosis.
Captain Ryan McDonagh (right hand injury) already is expected to miss at least part of the Blueshirts’ first-round series from a blocked shot in Columbus Monday night. And while Alain Vigneault said defenseman Dan Girardi (upper-body, day-to-day) will return for the start of the postseason, there is a chance now that two of Vigneault’s veteran presences — one up front and one in the back — could be sidelined at the start.
That start seems likely to open in Pittsburgh now against the scorching-hot, second-seed Penguins, too: Saturday’s victory vaulted the Rangers back into third place in the Metropolitan Division, with the Islanders at 99 points with two to play entering Saturday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.
The Islanders need three points combined in their remaining two games to reclaim third place, including Sunday night’s home game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Otherwise, it will be Rangers-Penguins and Islanders-Panthers in the first round.
Kevin Hayes slips one past Jimmy Howard for a third-period goal.
If Staal is unavailable at the start of the playoffs, Vigneault’s most prudent adjustment likely would be to reunite the duo of Oscar Lindberg and Viktor Stalberg on the flanks of Kevin Hayes on his third line, and slide Jesper Fast into Stalberg’s regular spot as right wing to fourth-liners Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore.
If Vigneault is convinced that J.T. Miller’s yips with the puck in these final few games will dissipate — the coach typically has a short leash with the young forward — that would probably leave lines of Miller, Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, with the familiar trio of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Rick Nash back together as they were during the 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Red Wings (41-30-11, 93 points), unlike the Rangers, had not clinched a playoff berth prior to Saturday, and Detroit lost with their postseason hopes on the line. But the Wings still clinched the Atlantic Division’s third seed thanks to the Bruins’ loss to Ottawa in Boston.
No one wants to play the Penguins, but the suggestion that the Blueshirts might intentionally tank games to lose their way into the first wild-card and avoid the Pens was always insulting and off-base. And the Rangers proved it in this victory, even if they ended in familiar fashion on their heels, fighting for their lives on a 6-on-3 disadvantage.
Backup goalie Antti Raanta was sharp, Dan Boyle scored a first-period goal in likely the final regular season game of a long and respected career. Kevin Hayes tipped one home off assists from two players Vigneault doesn’t often give enough credit or playing time — Dylan McIlrath (on the point shot) and Oscar Lindberg.
Then Lindberg added an empty-netter at 17:24 for a 3-1 lead that held up as the game-winner, since Detroit’s Justin Adbelkader scored to narrow it to 3-2 at 18:26.
Starters Mats Zuccarello and Stalberg sat with lower-body injuries that they would have been able to play through if this were must-win. But when Alain Vigneault successfully challenged Joakim Andersson’s goal 2:42 into the first period for off-sides and overturned the call, the Blueshirts’ coach set the tone that he and his players intended to win.