So the Rangers, after losing control of their own destiny in game No. 81, took care of their own business this weekend by beating Martin Brodeur and the Devils, then got the help they needed a few hours later to clinch a playoff berth. If you'd have told us two weeks ago that the Rangers would enter the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, two points ahead of ninth-place Carolina, we'd have told you that, yes, that seems like a perfectly reasonable outcome.
But if you'd have told us that the following series of events would play out like they did ...
Sunday: The Rangers win a tough road game in Philadelphia.
Monday: After falling behind 3–0 to Boston, the Rangers rally for a wild 5–3 victory. Defensive defenseman Michael Sauer, a rookie, scores the game-winning goal.
Tuesday: Word comes that Ryan Callahan will be out indefinitely with a broken ankle suffered during the previous night's game.
Wednesday: The Hurricanes blank Detroit to move to within two points of the Rangers.
Thursday: The Rangers look flat for much of the game in a 3–0 loss to Atlanta, which causes them to lose control of their own destiny.
Friday: The Hurricanes pound that same Atlanta team, 6–1, to bump the Rangers out of the playoff picture for the time being.
Saturday afternoon: Needing at least a point to stay alive, the Rangers beat the Devils 5–2. Chris Drury, on his first shift since returning from an injury, scores his first goal of the season. Defensive defenseman Ryan McDonaugh, a rookie, scores the game-winning goal. It's his first in the NHL.
Saturday night: The Hurricanes, playing at home against a talented Tampa Bay team that has nothing to play for, fall behind 4–0 midway through the game, lose 6–2, and are eliminated from playoff contention, giving the No. 8 seed to the Rangers.
... we'd have told you that you're crazier than a Mike Milbury–approved trade. But all of these things did indeed happen, and on Wednesday night, the Rangers will open the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the top-seeded Washington Capitals. It's been a dizzying eight days; we think the Rangers fan base needs a breather right now almost as much as Henrik Lundqvist does.
Needless to say, the final weekend of 2011 played out a lot better than the final weekend of 2010. Because losing out this time might have been even more painful: This time, the Rangers absolutely deserved to make the playoffs — we're not sure the same could be said for last year's team — and despite a couple of clunkers in the final few weeks of the season, they ended the year on a pretty nice little run, going 11-4-1 in their last sixteen games. (If not for the furious finishes of Carolina and Buffalo, they'd have locked this up awhile ago.)
Factor in that — a year after losing out on a berth in a shootout on the season's final day — they were in danger on Saturday of losing out this time because the tiebreaker rules changed this year, meaning Carolina's 41 victories would have been more valuable than the Rangers' 44 victories, nine of which came in a shootout. But karma smiled on this likable Rangers team. And now that the madness of the playoff push is over, the madness of the playoffs can begin. But first, a couple days of rest. We all need it.