For the second straight year the New York Rangers will learn their playoff fate on the last day of their regular season, but this time around they have much less control over the situation.
The Rangers welcome the rival New Jersey Devils across the Hudson River for a Saturday matinee at Madison Square Garden. They must at least get the game to overtime to not be eliminated from the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but even a win does not guarantee them a berth.
Carolina plays Saturday evening at RBC Center against Tampa Bay, and a win by the Hurricanes will also end New York's season regardless of the outcome earlier in the day. The winner of the battle for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference will travel to Washington to face the top-seeded Capitals when the playoffs begin next week.
"I'm going to focus on the game, not the consequences of what happens if we lose," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist told Larry Brooks of the New York Post. "I have to focus on my job and really be in the moment. It comes down to blocking everything out."
This day has an all too familiar feeling to it for the Rangers. It was 363 days ago that New York went to Philadelphia for a winner-take-all showdown for the final spot in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Flyers prevailed 2-1 in a shootout, sneaking into the playoffs before going on a run to within two victories of the Stanley Cup while the Rangers were left to wonder what went wrong.
"The feeling after that game, you don't forget the way that feels," Brandon Dubinsky said to Steve Zipay of Newsday. "Games against the Devils are always tough. We have to approach it like Game 7. I don't care if it's them or the Vancouver Canucks or the New York Islanders, we have to be ready to go. We've gotta have that urgency and that fire."
New York is in this position because of a 3-0 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers at MSG on Thursday night. The Hurricanes saw what happened to the Rangers and made sure not to suffer the same fate against the Thrashers 24 hours later.
Carolina, with playoff destiny in hand, routed the Thrashers 6-1 and now the Hurricanes will play for a return to the postseason in front of what should be a spirited crowd at RBC Center. Their opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is locked into the No. 5 seed and has little to play for.
"Nothing's really changed for us," Paul Maurice told Chip Alexander of the News & Observer. [Saturday night] is the game we're focused on. We did what we had to do here. ... It will be another challenge for us."
One of the big reasons why Carolina is in this position is the play of veteran Erik Cole. While captain Eric Staal, goaltender Cam Ward and rookie sensation Jeff Skinner receive much of the attention in Raleigh, Cole's scoring and physical play has played a huge role in Carolina's success.
Staal and Ward were the known quantities coming into this season, but it appeared scoring depth would be an issue. That hasn't been the case thanks to Skinner, but also because of Cole's 25 goals and 52 points.
"This is the best year he's had," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford told Alexander. "The way he has played the game, being a good all-around player and being a threat on the ice all the time, this is his best professional year."
Added Cole: "There have been some moments the last couple of weeks when it hasn't looked so great. It's been pretty grim in terms of how the standings looked and how the schedule looked and the wins and losses and everything. It's been great to see and be a part of. The group continued to stay in the fight and stayed positive, and continued to battle every night and give ourselves the opportunity."
The Rangers could have a boost in the return of Chris Drury and Mats Zuccarello to the lineup. Drury has not played since February 3 because of a knee injury and that came after missing two months earlier in the season with a broken finger.
Zuccarello had been dispatched to Hartford of the American Hockey League, but Tortorella admitted that his prowess in the shootout (5 of 9 this season) played a role in bringing him back for this critical contest. Sean Avery and Steve Eminger will be scratched to make room for Drury and Zuccarello, while Matt Gilroy will switch back to his normal spot on defense after seeing time on the wing.
"I think this is a better team [than last year]," Tortorella told Andrew Gross of The Record. "I think it's a better team mentally. I think it's a better team [in terms of] togetherness. I think it's a pretty [darn] good club and we're going to try to find a way."