NEW YORK, N.Y. - The New York Rangers did all they could to make the playoffs, but still needed a helping hand from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A surreal scene played out at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, beginning with the surprise return of captain Chris Drury to the New York lineup. He scored his first goal of the season during his first shift and provided a lift that led to a 5-2 comeback victory over the New Jersey Devils.
That, coupled with the Carolina Hurricanes' 6-2 home loss Saturday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning—who had nothing to play for—put the Rangers into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and into a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Washington Capitals.
The Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention in the final game last season.
Ryan McDonagh netted the first of his NHL career during a three-goal second period and the Rangers coasted from there against the Devils, who are playing out the string in a rare non-playoff season.
The Rangers earned a win they needed in front of an excited, yet nervous crowd that will see the team play again this season. New York's final game ended about four hours before the Lightning saved the season.
"We did what we had to do. We played a great game. We got the points," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said.
Elsewhere in the NHL it was: Tampa Bay 6, Carolina 2; Boston 3, Ottawa 1; Vancouver 3, Calgary 2 (OT); Montreal 4, Toronto 1; Philadelphia 7, N.Y. Islanders 4; Florida 1, Washington 0; St. Louis 2, Nashville 0; Buffalo 5, Columbus 4; Anaheim 3, Los Angeles 1; and San Jose 3, Phoenix 1.
At New York, the Rangers earned their 44th win to take a two-point lead over Carolina, which entered Saturday with 40 wins. New York's problem was only 35 wins came not via the shootout. A tiebreaker instituted this season eliminates shootout victories from a team's total.
"It is frustrating when you end up with 44 wins, and a team that may end up with 41 gets in and you don't," Rangers coach John Tortorella said.
But it didn't happen.
Once the game was in hand, fans began chanting "Let's Go Lightning," hoping to get the necessary help from the Lightning, the club Tortorella coached to the Stanley Cup title in 2004.
With the season on the line, Drury returned to the lineup for the first time in two months and scored right away. Drury had been out since Feb. 3 because of a knee injury that required surgery, missing the previous 27 games. He tied it 1-1 at 3:14.
"No matter who scored, scoring quickly after they went up 1-0 was a big thing," Drury said.
New York, which held a 29-26 edge in shots, also trailed 2-1, but tied it when Wojtek Wolski scored the first of the Rangers' second-period goals 1:52 in. McDonagh, the rookie defenceman playing in his 40th NHL game, put the Rangers in front at 11:59, and Brandon Prust pushed the lead to 4-2 with 3:54 left.
The Rangers remain the only NHL team not to lose a game this season when leading after two periods (29-0).
Vinny Prospal made it 5-2 with 9:11 to go, bringing more derisive chants of "Maaar-ty" in the direction of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.
Nick Palmieri and an energized Ilya Kovalchuk staked the Devils to a pair of first-period leads. New Jersey hoped to salvage something out of its disappointing season, that resulted in the team's first playoff absence since 1996, but couldn't knock out the rival Rangers.
"We're going to go home regardless of this," Brodeur said. "This is disappointing for our fans. It's something I am sure they would love for us to do."
Never since the Devils franchise relocated to New Jersey in 1982 have the New York metropolitan area's three teams—Rangers, Islanders, Devils—all missed the playoffs in a season.
Brodeur said he had no rooting interest between the Rangers and Hurricanes, who have knocked the Devils out of the playoffs in two of the previous five seasons.
"I don't like both teams. That's honest," he said with a laugh. "Carolina has been hard for us in the playoffs, and well, the Rangers are the Rangers, so it doesn't really matter."
At Raleigh, N.C., Vincent Lecavalier had a goal and an assist, and quick-starting Tampa Bay eliminated the Hurricanes from playoff contention.
Lecavalier, Dominic Moore and Steven Stamkos scored during a 6-minute, 32-second flurry in the first period.
The Lightning led 4-0 midway through the second and held on to send the Rangers into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East.
At Boston, Nathan Horton scored a tiebreaking goal early in the second period and Tim Thomas stopped 31 shots to help the Bruins win their regular-season home finale.
It was the Bruins' seventh win in 10 games and left them in contention for the East's second seed with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Boston must win its regular-season finale Sunday in New Jersey to have a chance.
Daniel Paille and Rich Peverley had Boston's other goals.
Bobby Butler scored for the Senators, who missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and fired coach Cory Clouston and two assistants after the loss.
At Calgary, Christian Ehrhoff scored at 2:41 of overtime to help playoff-bound Vancouver wrap up the best regular season in franchise history.
At Toronto, Brian Gionta scored two goals and Carey Price made 27 saves to help Montreal close the season as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
At Philadelphia, Scott Hartnell and Andrej Meszaros each scored two goals, and the Flyers clinched the Atlantic Division and the No. 2 seed in the East by beating the New York Islanders.
At Sunrise, Fla., Bill Thomas scored with 6:05 remaining and Tomas Vokoun made 28 saves to help the Panthers close the season by snapping a 10-game losing streak.
At St. Louis, Jaroslav Halak shut out playoff-bound Nashville for the third time this season and T.J. Oshie scored from his knees early in the second period as the Blues beat the Predators.
At Columbus, Ohio, Paul Gaustad scored the winner late on a power play, and four other Buffalo players scored in the regular-season finale for both teams.
At Los Angeles, Saku Koivu had a goal and an assist, and Dan Ellis made 43 saves to help Anaheim claim the fourth seed in the West.
At San Jose, Calif., Joe Pavelski scored his 20th goal of the season and Antti Niemi made 35 saves as the Sharks wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the West.