For the Rangers, this week has had the dual purpose of preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs and earning home-ice advantage in the first round.
One down, one to go.
The Rangers will enter the first round with home ice after their 2-1 win over the Sabres at the Garden Thursday, and the Flyers’ 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay.
Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves and Benoit Pouliot and Rick Nash scored. Nash’s drive from the half wall with 1:39 left was the game-winner in a game the Rangers acknowledged was essentially a must-win.
“You want to finish as high in the standings as possible,” Marc Staal said. “We knew that if we lose this one, potentially we could have slipped into a wild-card spot if we [lose Saturday night in Montreal]. It was a big two points for us against a team that doesn’t have a lot to play for.”
The Rangers will conclude the regular season Saturday night in Montreal, before attempting to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in two decades starting next week.
Head coach Alain Vigneault was adamant his team is prepared for the playoffs when met with reporters during the optional morning skate at the Garden.
“Yes,” Vigneault said. “We’ve been fighting our way to get into the playoffs. We’ve done that. We’re playing some good hockey and we’re ready for the opportunity, and we’re ready for the challenge.”
Against the league’s worst team — the Sabres entered the game 3-15-1 in their previous 18 games — the Rangers found themselves trailing 1-0 when Drew Stafford scored with 10:54 left in the second. Pouliot drew the teams even with 31 seconds left in a period in which the Rangers outshot Buffalo by 17 (18-1).
The Rangers finished with a 30-24 advantage in shots on goal.
“It was calm [on the bench],” Brad Richards said about the second period. “Everybody kept chipping in and grab momentum — get some shots, some chances. It just felt once [Pouliot] scored — I personally felt we probably would have scored more — but it just felt once he scored we were in control again and it was a matter of time.”
Until Pouliot’s goal, the Rangers were stymied by Sabres goaltender Matt Hackett, who finished with 23 saves.
“He’s good,” Staal said of Hackett. “He’s aggressive. I thought a lot of the rebounds he was leaving, their defense was doing a good job of clearing them out so we couldn’t get too many [second-chance] opportunities. He was solid.”
But there was nothing Hackett could have done a Nash game-winner Lundqvist termed “a beauty.”
As the Metropolitan Division’s No. 2 seed, the Rangers will face either Philadelphia or Columbus in the first round, both of whom the Rangers have had success against in the regular season. The Rangers and Flyers split the regular season series, 2-2-0, while the Rangers were 2-1-1 against Columbus.
“To have a Game 7 at home that feels pretty good,” Lundqvist said. “The experience changes. To play at home is just a great feeling and to feel the atmosphere and the support, you get goosebumps. You want to play as many games as possible at home.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.