It was a huge night in the NHL's Eastern Conference playoff race, most particularly for the teams sitting in 7th to 9th place. Going into tonight's action the New York Rangers sat tied for 8th place with the Florida Panthers, and were 3 points back of the 7th place Montreal Canadiens. With Florida also in action tonight the Rangers knew the game was a must win if they didn't want to slip out of a playoff spot. Well, the Rangers delivered tonight. Unfortunately for fans of the Canadiens and the Panthers, their clubs did not.
The Rangers got 2 goals from Captain Clutch himself, Chris Drury, and goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped 24 of 25 shots as the Blueshirts handled the Habs 3-1. Montreal goalie Carey Price, back for his first game after missing time with the flu, showed no signs of rust after the layoff. He was by far the busier of the two goalies, and stopped 41 shots in a losing cause. Unfortunately Price didn't have much in the way of offensive help with Mathieu Dandenault the only Hab to solve Lundqvist. The Canadiens are understandably reeling following the devastating losses of Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider, who both went down with long-term injuries on the weekend. Montreal is going to have to quickly figure out how to play without their top 2 offensive defensemen or they will quickly be dispatched from the playoffs (assuming they get there in the first place).
The Florida Panthers could have pulled to within 1 point of the Habs with a win against the Flyers tonight, but though they played a desperate game they lost a squeaker to the Philadelphia Flyers, falling 2-1. With the loss things are looking bleak indeed for the Panthers, who must win their final 2 games and hope the Habs and Rangers don't win any more games. If the Panthers don't make the playoffs their decision not to move coveted puck-moving defenseman Jay Bouwmeester at this year's trade deadline will look terrible indeed. Set to become an unrestricted free agent this July 1st, Bouwmeester can walk away with the Panthers seeing nothing in return.
The last few days of the regular season will be rife with drama, and these games are like bonus playoff matches for rabid NHL hockey fans. Grab some beer, get settled in your favorite recliner and enjoy the action!