NEW YORK — Derek Stepan’s late heroics lifted the New York Rangers closer to the Presidents’ Trophy.
Stepan scored with 28 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, then got the winner late in the extra period in the Rangers’ 4-3 victory over the Blue Jackets on April 6.
With their fourth straight win, the Rangers improved to 51-21-7 for a league-best 109 points. With three games remaining, the Rangers need two points to win the Presidents’ Trophy for the second time franchise history.
The only other time was the 1993-94 season — the last time the franchise won the Stanley Cup.
The Rangers could clinch the Eastern Conference as soon as April 7 at New Jersey.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Ryan McDonagh said about potentially winning the Presidents’ Trophy. “It’s about us playing to our strengths and giving us a chance to win.”
The only team that could catch New York is Anaheim, but the Rangers have four more (46-42) regulation and overtime wins, a tiebreaker, and have played fewer games than the Pacific Division champions.
New York’s 51 wins and 109 points are second most in franchise history behind the 52 wins and 112 points the 1993-94 team earned.
“We still want to win all of our games,” said Dan Girardi, who scored for New York along with Martin St. Louis. Henrik Lundqvist made 29 saves and has won all four of those games in the streak.
Matt Calvert, Marko Dano and Brandon Dubinsky scored for Columbus, which outplayed New York for much of the second half of the game. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 38 shots.
Columbus, the NHL’s hottest team, had won nine in a row, but won’t make the playoffs.
“There’s confidence, belief in the room,” Columbus coach Todd Richards said of the way his team played during the winning streak. “It’s what we did last year. Typical Blue Jackets hockey.”
With Lundqvist pulled for an extra skater, Stepan whipped Chris Kreider’s feed past Bobrovsky as Madison Square Garden crowd erupted. Stepan ended a wild overtime with a forehand shot with 49.6 seconds to go as the fans again celebrated.
“I think in order to have success in the playoffs, you have to be able to handle ebbs and flows,” said Stepan, who has 16 goals on the season. “We’ve been able to find ways to win hockey games.”
The celebratory noise was in stark contrast to the quiet inside the building after former Ranger Dubinsky snapped Nick Foligno’s feed past Lundqvist midway in the third period for the Blue Jackets’ only lead.
“It’s disappointing to end that streak,” Calvert said. “We just have to do a better job battling through adversity.”
St. Louis opened the scoring in the first period with his 21st goal. Kevin Hayes carried the puck into the offensive zone and whiffed on a shot attempt. But as he fell to the ice, he fed a cutting St. Louis for a snap shot from the slot.
Calvert drew the teams even late in the period, pressuring defenseman McDonagh into a defensive zone turnover. Jeremy Morin recovered, before feeding Calvert for a tap-in.
Girardi put New York ahead 2-1 just 36 seconds into the second period, sneaking down right wing before snapping a quick shot from the top of the right circle.
Dano tied the game when he swatted Artem Anisimov’s rebound past Lundqvist.
“It was a good test for me and for us,” Lundqvist said. “They’re a really good team. They’re a fast team. If they didn’t have the injuries during the season to key guys, I think they’d be in the playoffs because they play good hockey: physical, good speed, good quality up front, good goaltending.
“It was a great test for us.”