More important than avoiding the dreaded first-round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers propelled themselves into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs with the type of win that bolsters confidence and provides some promise.
In beating up on the Devils 4-0 in the regular season finale at Madison Square Garden Saturday, the Rangers soothed some doubts that may have crept in with a less-than-stellar march to the finish line.
The Rangers avoided an eighth-place finish and secured the No. 6 seed heading into the postseason, where they'll face the third-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round.
It was a far cry from the dominant regular season from last-year’s group, but it felt just as good to coach John Tortorella to see his club scratch and claw their way to the end.
"You’re g--damn right I’m proud of ’em," Tortorella said. "I like ’em. I think it’s a good team."
Star winger Rick Nash tallied twice and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made 20 saves to secure his second shutout of the season in his 14th consecutive start. With his 51st career shutout, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner surpassed Eddie Giacomin as the Rangers' all-time leader in that category.
It was an important game for Nash, held off the scoresheet in the previous three contests, to pick up his play heading into the post-season.
"It’s what I signed up for," Nash said of playing playoff hockey in New York. "There’s not a bigger stage. I think great athletes love the pressure. ... I’m sure most of the guys in this room understand what it’s like to play in the playoffs here but I’m about to find out fast."
Callahan made a deft feed to find Stepan in the crease for the game’s first goal 2:37 into play. Stepan, who Tortorella called the team’s most "consistent" performer this season, later returned the favor, intercepting a pass at the red line to spring Callahan for a short-handed breakaway later in the period.
"It’s been a really good line," Tortorella said. "We broke it up at a certain time, just trying to get some sort of balance and try to get a couple other people going, but we come back to it and it’s been a very good line."
Nash padded the Rangers’ two-goal lead with his 20th and 21st goals of the season, with alternate captain Brad Richards setting up his linemate on both.
Extending his point streak to six games, Richards laced a pass through two Devils defenders to find Nash at the left circle with 2:37 to play in the second while linemate Mats Zuccarello dished off to Nash in the third for his second goal of the day.
The diminutive Norwegian winger, who missed last year’s playoffs with a broken hand, is making a major impact on the team this season.
"I love playing with him," Richards said. "His hockey sense and the little plays he makes, reminds me a little of Marty St. Louis when I was in Tampa ... he’s brought a lot to us."
There are still some questions to be answered with this year’s club -- and significant injuries to players like Marc Staal, Brian Boyle and Ryane Clowe will likely be a factor -- but the Rangers are rolling into the playoffs on the right note.
The identity of the 2013 Rangers is not identical to that of last season’s team. In fact, Tortorella is still trying to discern that identity. But, for now, he’s happy with what he sees.
"I’m not sure what the personality of the team is -- last year we knew our personality -- this team’s a little different than last year, but I just think we’re sustaining better," Tortorella said. "That’s the important thing."