COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Derek Stepan stole the puck on a late-third period penalty kill and backhanded it into the empty Blue Jackets net for a 4-2 lead with 1:11 to play, a smile appeared behind Henrik Lundqvist’s mask.
The goal guaranteed two points, to bring the Rangers to 97, which was enough to clinch a playoff berth for the sixth consecutive season on their third try in the past week.
“It’s a great feeling, a proud feeling, we’re in,” Lundqvist said after the Blueshirts snapped a three-game losing streak. “It hasn’t been pretty at times, at times it’s been great, but playing in this league, it’s a grind and it’s about finding ways to win games that can go either way. We’ll see who we’re going to face. This is the time of year when you really want to play hockey.”
But the victory was somewhat dampened by a right hand injury to captain Ryan McDonagh, who stepped in front of Brandon Dubinsky’s one-timer at 14:47 of the first period. As soon as the puck struck, McDonagh immediately dropped his stick. On the bench, the Rangers captain was treated with ice and came on for another shift, but didn’t return after the intermission.
“He’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “We’re in the process of discussing it, but there is a good chance we might call somebody up.”
For the first time in three games, the Rangers scored first. Chris Kreider’s 20th of the season came when he backhanded in a rebound of his own shot at 6:17. Lundqvist received his fourth assist of the season on the play, firing the puck up to Stepan, who shouldered through the defense for the initial shot on Joonas Korpisalo. “We were really locked in,” said Lundqvist, “that’s the feeling I had, the way we played in front of both nets. That’s the way we’re going to have to play moving forward.”
The Rangers extended the lead to 2-0 when Dan Boyle strolled down the right side and slipped a shot through the wickets of Korpisalo at 5:28 of the second. Marc Staal got trucked by Nick Foligno, and after a whistle, went back at him and received two minutes for roughing. Seventeen seconds after the power play ended, David Savard’s long wrister was tipped past Lundqvist by Foligno at 14:41, cutting the lead to 2-1. Mats Zuccarello restored the two-goal lead after Kreider blocked a shot in the neutral zone and sped off on a 2 on 1 with Zuccarello, who scored his 26th at 18:14.
In the third, the Rangers, now three points behind the second-place Penguins for home ice in the Metropolitan Division, had to battle to survive, fighting off a Rick Nash penalty at 3:16. They also were fortunate when a shot hit the crossbar behind Lundqvist, and Foligno brought the Jackets within one with 9:15 left. He curled around Kevin Klein near the right circle and his shot appeared to hit Boyle’s stick in front and deflect past Lundqvist. With 2:03 left, Zuccarello went off for a high stick and Korpisalo was pulled with 1:40 left.
“In the third period, it was obvious we were a little nervous,” said Vigneault. “We knew there’s a lot on the line, Hank made the saves he had to make and we had a big kill near the end. It’s tough to get to the dance. With three games to go, we can still work for home ice and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”