PHILADELPHIA -- It would be unlike this Rangers team to let a challenge go unmet. So, after allowing one opportunity to clinch the Eastern Conference regular-season title slip past on Sunday, they refused this one to escape their grip.
Fueled by a four-goal first-period and a spectacular performance by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers topped the Flyers 5-3 to complete a series sweep in Philadelphia and secure the top spot headed into the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The accomplishment is a mighty feat for the scrappy, relentless squad that has exceeded expectations at almost every turn of a trying and taxing season. Coach John Tortorella molded his team to embrace a hard-nosed, blue-collar identity, Ryan Callahan personified that in his first season as captain, and the Rangers bought in.
Tuesday was the reward.
"It gives this team the attitude that we're right there with the best teams in this league and we can play with anybody," Callahan said.
Callahan tallied his 29th of the season on the Rangers' second power-play goal within 36 seconds in the final two minutes of the first period. The long-suffering special teams unit recorded three man-up goals throughout the course of the game, all of which were vital in preserving their lead against a Flyers club that surged back in the third.
Chased as they have been for virtually the entire second half of the season while perched atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Rangers held off the Flyers in feverish pursuit behind goals from Callahan, Ryan McDonagh, Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle. Philadelphia didn't fold up after falling behind early, but it couldn't surmount the 4-0 hole, either. And Lundqvist was the main reason.
Philadelphia whittled the Rangers' lead to two goals in a penalty-riddled third, but Lundqvist was almost infallible in one of his most sensational efforts of the year. In his season-high 10th straight start, Lundqvist made 37 saves. He did so even after taking a hard shot to his right forearm while making a jaw-dropping stop in the second.
"We battled," said Lundqvist, who set a career high with his 39th win of the season. "It was a war out there. It was a good test."
The Rangers can take pride in the achievements -- the franchise's first Atlantic Division title since the Stanley Cup-winning 1994 team -- but they realize plenty of work lies ahead and that nothing should be taken for granted.
"The league is so close now that anybody that gets in has an expectation of winning," said alternate captain Brad Richards, who finished with two assists. "All it is is two good weeks of hockey, in our case maybe a week of hockey that we played better than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. When you look at that over 82 games, it doesn't mean you're supposed to win anything [just] because you're first."
So, Tuesday was the regular-season reward. But the Rangers are not done. Not even near close to what they set out to achieve. The ultimate prize remains in their sights.
"We're really looking forward to the playoffs," Tortorella said. "It's a long year for these guys. Now we've accomplished two things: making it, and we end up being the No. 1 team in our conference; we have home ice. In another few days here, the real stuff starts. I know the guys are really anxious to get going."