Head coach John Tortorella and the Rangers have espoused a one-day-at-a-time mantra throughout this most remarkable season.

That is why his words were odd following last Saturday night’s 4-1 loss to the Capitals at the Garden. The coach who doesn’t look ahead was looking ahead.

“Glad we’re healthy,” Tortorella said. “Now the real stuff starts.”

For 16 franchises, the six-month, 82-game marathon was a prelude to the endurance test that is the Stanley Cup playoffs. The two-month long playoffs start today with the Flyers-Penguins, Red Wings-Predators and Canucks-Kings series. The Senators-Rangers series begins tomorrow while the Panthers-Devils starts Friday night.

Among the byproducts of the 2004-05 lockout was the creation of a level playing field. The system has worked incredibly well. Only the Maple Leafs have not qualified for the playoffs in the past seven seasons.

Valid arguments can be made for eight of the 16 playoffs teams winning the Cup. And convincing claims can be made for any of the 16 teams to advance to the conference semifinals.

“We're coming off an incredibly exciting regular season. Attendance ratings, all benchmarks of measuring how we're doing were strong and up,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a joint conference call with NBC Sports Group executives Monday afternoon. “Frankly, I don't know that a sports league has ever seen competitive balance like we have the last few seasons, particularly this season. For some of our clubs, the playoffs literally began six or eight weeks ago.”

The league enters its pre-eminent showcase with a broadcast partner that is building its programming around the sport.

The NHL and NBC announced a 10-year agreement worth close to $2 billion last April. As part of the NHL’s long term partnership with NBC, every playoff game will be televised on the network’s various platforms for the first time ever. NHL Network will also carry games.

“We're thrilled at everything that we've been doing with the NBC Sports Group. There was no single better beneficiary of the merger than the NHL because of our prior relationships both with Comcast through Versus and with NBC. Having the power of this combined entity, having the NBC Sports Group doing what has been for us the best promotion we've ever seen,” Bettman said. “It has been a collaborative effort. We've never been scheduled or produced better than now.

“Perhaps the most important element to us in this new relationship is the fact that all of our Stanley Cup games are being televised nationally. That is something we never had before as a sport. When the game is this good and the fan relationship is this good, we think this takes us to a whole new level. That engages fans in whatever market they're in, wherever they've moved, whether their team has been eliminated, you can get all the hockey you want on an extraordinarily well-covered basis.”

Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.

Latest From ...