New York Rangers clinch playoff spot with wild OT win — ‘Just the first step’

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NEW YORK — This one will be memorable for a lot of reasons.

There was Artemi Panarin reaching 100 points, the first Ranger to do that in 18 years (and then 101 and 102). There was Peter Laviolette’s 800th coaching win, just the seventh man to ever accomplish that mark.

And, after Adam Fox buried one 36 seconds into overtime, there was an “X” next to the Rangers in the NHL standings to indicate a playoff berth clinched. The 6-5 win wasn’t a thing of beauty or even one that will yield much positive video feedback, but it was a milestone two points for a team that’s got its sights set on bigger things.

“For us to stay as consistent as we have, it speaks a lot to the group and what we set out to do at the start of the year,” said Fox, who scored his 15th goal with the OT winner. “It’s big for us to clinch a playoff spot. And that’s just the first step here.”

Tuesday was not likely to be a smooth night for the Rangers, who added Erik Gustafsson to the group of missing regular defensemen. Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren both skated on Tuesday morning but neither has a timetable attached to his return; Gustafsson, who took a Sam Reinhart elbow to the face late in Saturday’s shootout win over the Panthers, is still day to day.

So that meant undrafted rookie Brandon Scanlin got his rookie lap and NHL debut on Tuesday. Zac Jones got the spot alongside Fox for much of the game, playing a hefty 22:58 against a young, high-motor Flyers team that controlled most of the play and didn’t quit on anything. Jones definitely struggled at times with the added minutes and the Rangers got worked around for stretches of this game, but there was plenty of resilience on both sides as the teams traded goals throughout the third.

Panarin, Vincent Trocheck and Mika Zibanejad all played major minutes as the Rangers chased back into a game they trailed 2-0 with under five minutes to go in the second. Jonny Brodzinski, a late addition to the lineup after Alex Wennberg was a late scratch for personal reasons, tallied the tying goal early in the third. Alexis Lafrenière scored two in the third, both times giving the Rangers a brief lead.

There was plenty of effort and resolve in a game that certainly meant more to the Flyers as they try to clinch an unlikely playoff berth. But the Rangers, whose 18-4-1 start to Laviolette’s first season marked them as Stanley Cup contenders from just about day one, wanted to get this achievement out of the way to allow them to start thinking about what’s to come.

They also opened a three-point gap on the Panthers for the Metro Division title and the ability to avoid whatever team between the Flyers and Caps is playing best when the regular season ends. If it’s Philly in the wild-card spot to face the Rangers, Tuesday showed it would be relentless and possibly nasty. And that John Tortorella’s team refuses to go away, as it’s played this entire season.

So reaching the playoffs and reaching 100 team points for a third straight season — that century mark three years in a row has only been accomplished twice before in franchise history — was a goal. After a while during this strong year, it clearly became a secondary goal, even if you have to make the playoffs first to have a chance.

“If you start looking too far ahead into a plan or if you start remembering too much of what happened four days ago, I think you can get lost,” Laviolette said. “I think you’ve got to stay current with what you’re doing. Our guys have done a really good job of that when the schedule’s been tough. We’re banged up a little bit. (Tonight) wasn’t our best but we still found a way to win. If you can stay in the current moment enough times you get to a position to answer a question like (what it means to make the playoffs).”

Laviolette said he doesn’t plan on changing much over these final 11 games — there’s still a division title in reach and the Rangers have performed well with the coaches’ plan, so there’s no need to alter it much heading into the postseason. So barring anyone being banged up you’ll still see plenty of Zibanejad, Panarin, Trocheck and Lafrenière. Plenty of Fox, who has played his way into the Norris Trophy conversation — probably not for the trophy itself, but at least in the final three — over the last seven weeks.

Laviolette acknowledged all the coaches and players he’s worked with over 1,502 games to get to 800 wins. “Michael Peca made sure to point out he was there for the first one,” Laviolette said of his Islanders captain way back in 2001-02.

The milestones were nice on Tuesday. Now, it’s on to bigger and better things.

(Photo: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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