Rangers on verge of clinching playoff berth after five seasons

Rangers on verge of clinching playoff berth after five seasons

Five years after they last qualified for the postseason, the Rangers will be back among the teams looking to hoist the Stanley Cup.

It might happen as soon as Saturday night at the Garden if the Rangers can knock off the visiting Senators. If not Saturday, coach Gerard Gallant’s surprising team inevitably will punch its ticket back into the 16-team tournament.

“Every year when you play you aim for the playoffs, you aim to win. Definitely a better feeling than it has been, ”said alternate captain Mika Zibanejad, one of the longest-tenured Rangers. “It’s been worth the wait and it’s been fun to be here even though there’s been a couple of tough years or however you want to call them. It’s a fun thing to be part of the solution, and just to be here now, it’s obviously a better feeling. ”

Much has changed since the last time the Rangers were in this position. Much has had to go right this season for it to happen, from the development of key young players to the good fortune in the draft lottery to the gutsy moves to install Chris Drury as general manager and Gallant behind the bench. It has led to this point, with a tough-minded yet still-young group that has far surpassed the low expectations with which it entered the season.

“I read lots of things where we would be back in October and we’re not there,” Gallant said with a wry smile. “We’ve had a good start, we’ve had a good first 72 games. I’m happy where we’re at, but you can never be satisfied because things change in a minute. ”

Artemi Panarin (left) will be on the same line as Mika Zibanejad for their next game against the Predators.
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On Friday, Gallant made sure to credit those who came before him, and point out that he felt this team’s arrow was pointing upward before his arrival. Drury’s predecessors, Jeff Gorton and John Davidson, rebuilt the aging roster. They brought in, among others, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Lindgren and Ryan Strome. Last year’s team, coached by David Quinn, only missed the playoffs by four points.

Drury clearly found the right coach in the 58-year-old Gallant, and he has made significant moves to bolster this group, adding significant depth up front and on the blue line at the trade deadline.

“When I got to this team, I knew there [were] a few little holes to take care of, but they were on their way up. Years before that, they had some good young players, and they had to take another step, and that’s what we talked about [before the season], ”Gallant said. “They were on their way up, and they took another step again this year, just like they’re probably going to do again next year. They’re young kids, we’re still a young team. They took a step and it’s going in the right direction. ”

There aren’t any big celebrations planned. Gallant laughed when he was asked if he would pop any champagne when that elusive playoff spot is clinched. He isn’t going to coach the next 10 games any differently than he has the first 72, and his players aren’t going to play any differently, either. First place remains attainable. The Rangers trailed the Hurricanes by two points entering Friday and are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Reaching the postseason was just the first goal.

“My expectation was to make the playoffs,” Gallant said. “I’ll be happy, but I’ll celebrate at the end of June, hopefully. That’s when you want to celebrate. ”

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