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Chris Kreider knew nothing different. He made his NHL debut in the third game of the first round of the 2012 playoffs for the Black-and-Blueshirt team that advanced to the conference finals. He and the Rangers were in the Stanley Cup final two years later. A year after that came the Presidents’ Trophy. The first six seasons of Kreider’s career, there were six trips to the playoffs.
“I stepped into a team that was one of the best teams in the league, I was a young guy trying to make it in that lineup and I probably did take it for granted,” Kreider said after scoring his 48th and 49th goals Saturday in the 5-1 triumph over the Senators that clinched the Rangers’ first playoff berth since 2017. “It’s a very hard league to win in, there are no easy games or easy nights, and to be one of the top teams in the league after 82 games is a privilege and it’s something the guys should be proud of.”
This clinching came in Game 73, equaling the club’s second-fastest since the inception of the hard cap in 2005-06. Only the 2011-12 club that finished second-overall did it quicker, and that by one game. The 2014-15 first-overall Blueshirts also clinched in Game 73.
This team went into a playoff spot on Oct. 18 by winning the fourth game of the season in Toronto and never dropped below the cut-line.
There is more at stake in the regular season with the Blueshirts now tied for first place with Carolina in the Metropolitan Division. The Hurricanes have one game in hand, which they will make up Sunday against the Ducks before coming to the Garden for a confrontation on Tuesday.
“We’ll enjoy this tonight,” Kreider said. “But we’ll keep pushing.”
The Rangers danced around the word, “mandate” pretty much from the first day of training camp even if there was an unmistakable mandate to return to the tournament that was communicated last May with the hiring of Chris Drury as president-general manager in the wake of the firings of John Davidson Jeff Gorton. Then, of course, Gerard Gallant was hired to replace David Quinn behind the bench.
Yes, making the playoffs was an objective. Yes, it was a common goal. Yes indeed, it was a mandate.
“I’m not going to start talking about [a mandate] now,” Ryan Strome said while chuckling. “But everyone knew the feeling. I think we understood.
“You look at our roster, you’ve got some of the best players in the world, some young talent, probably the best goalie in the world. It’s time. And we took that first step.
“It’s a good feeling tonight. Obviously there’s emotion, the building was unreal and there was tremendous energy in the crowd. The way the last couple of years have gone, it’s a good feeling, it’s going to be a fun next couple of weeks, a fun next couple of months. We’re ready for the challenge.”
This clincher was a one-sided affair in which the Blueshirts simply outclassed an outmanned opponent playing out the string. Shot attempts were 31-5 for the first period. The Senators looked a lot like the Rangers had the final weeks of, say, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
But the Rangers are on the other side of the looking glass now. Their rebuilding was announced in The Letter in February of 2018 foretelling the deadline purges of 2018 and 2019. But the rebuilding, as Kreider noted from the podium on Saturday, became a “reload” when the club signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year free agent, $81.5 million contract on July 1, 2019. With those strokes of pens, the Rangers dramatically accelerated the program.
Panarin has been one of the great big-money free-agent signings in pro sports history. The Russian Rockette, spectacular in this one with a goal and two assists, has produced 241 points (70-71) in 179 games as a Ranger. His 1.35 points-per-game are fourth in the NHL behind fellow luminaries Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon. That is the company Panarin keeps as he heads to the playoffs for the fourth time.
“The team is progressing,” Panarin said. “But obviously the dream has not been fully realized.”
He was talking about the Stanley Cup.