With around seven minutes left in the third period of their team's 5-2 win against the New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers fans in the MSG cheap seats started cheering for a team that wasn't even on the ice:
"Let's Go Lightning!"
It was both an acknowledgement that the Rangers need help tonight to qualify for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and that the Blueshirts had, in fact, secured a clutch win to force the issue.
New York wins the No. 8 seed with a Carolina Hurricanes' loss of any kind at home against the Lightning. Any Hurricanes' win, even in the shootout, will knot up the teams with 93 points and hand the No. 8 seed to Carolina because it won more points in the head-to-head season series with the Rangers.
The Rangers' effort on Saturday was as inspiring as their effort against the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday was as putrid as bottled water from the Hudson.
They were resilient. Chris Drury, the Rangers captain making a stunning return to the team after being out since Feb. 3, not only scored to equal Nick Palmieri's goal just 1:11 later but scored his first of the season. Then, after the Devils entered the dressing room with a 2-1 lead after one, Wojtek Wolski scored just 1:52 into the second to tie it again.
Ryan McDonagh's first NHL goal broke the tie at 11:59, but it was Brandon Prust's rebound goal just over four minutes later that was the dagger, overpowering the Devils defense down low, his first goal since March 24. (Jersey was missing Colin White and Anton Volchenkov, leaving the defense in front of Marty Brodeur with about as much muscle as a pre-super serum Steve Rogers.)
The Rangers did their part, and the deafening cheers from the MSG faithful validated that — even when those cheers turned into support for the Lightning.
The subplots tonight are delicious: John Tortorella, needing a win from Vinny, Marty and the Lightning. Marc Staal, hoping big brother Eric gets an early vacation. Cam Ward, with a chance to do the same to Henrik Lundqvist, who's gotten 10 times the attention as a goaltending MVP.
But the main plot is the essential one: Win, and you're in.
The playoffs begin tonight in Raleigh. No help. No excuses. Outside of having already clinched, this is the next best position to be in: Win and you're in. If the Hurricanes fail to capitalize on this opportunity -- fate in their hands, against a team with zippy to play for -- then they didn't belong in the tournament anyway.
No one remembers ninth place. Carolina's playing for the validation of its season, the honor to continue playing and the Rangers' playoff lives.