Going into last night's game, the New York Rangers needed only a tie with the Washington Capitals to beat out Pittsburgh for a spot in the NHL playoffs.

But, with two minutes left and the Capitals ahead, 4-2, it appeared the Rangers' playoff entry was going to depend on tonight's final regular season game against Pittsburgh, which needed to defeat Philadelphia last night to stay alive.

"I was afraid to look at the score of the Pittsburgh game on the scoreboard ," said New York Coach Ted Sator with a sigh of relief. After his assistant coach, Reg Higgs, informed him that Pittsburgh and Philadelpia had gone into overtime, Sator said, "I could have strangled him for making me die a thousand deaths."

As it turned out, the worrying was for naught. The Rangers stunned the Capitals with two goals in the final 1:51.

"I think you have to give our guys a lot of credit," said Sator, "because the players were talking about coming out and showing our playoff faces. I think Reg summed it up: the common denominator was that we wanted it. It sure feels as if the albatross has been taken off."

"I was not wishing for us to go back into Madison Square Garden. I think the pressure would have been on us."

To Sator, it was fitting that James Patrick scored the tying goal, with 16 seconds remaining, on a shot from the left of the faceoff circle that went into the upper left corner of the net. "The end of the season, he has stepped to the forefront," said Sator.

Patrick, who has six goals and four assists in his last seven games, said he got the puck from the faceoff and was helped by teammate Brian MacLellan, who tried to screen Capitals goalie Pete Peeters.

"I think Brian just did a good job on the faceoff," said Patrick. "It started rolling to me and a rolling puck is hard to stop, but I got good wood on it.

"Brian MacLellan right off the faceoff went to the net. I threw it at the net, and it just went in. You ask any goalie -- it's a hard shot to stop."

MacLellan said: "Just as I went to the net, he got the shot away. I didn't know if I distracted Peeters or not." Peeters said he didn't see the puck until it already had gone into the goal.

"There had been so many times we were close before, and it didn't go in," said Sator.

"We didn't want it to come down to one game, because anything can happen," said New York defenseman Willie Huber, who received a pass from Wilf Paiement and scored with 1:51 remaining to narrow the margin to 4-3.

"We wanted to get in on our own," said Patrick. "We said that 40 games ago we didn't want to back in. I'm glad it isn't going down to the final game , because today was a hard-fought game."