By Jim Cerny, BlueshirtsUnited.com
Knowing they could not afford another letdown Thursday night at Madison Square Garden the Rangers grabbed an early lead and never trailed the rest of the way, beating the Florida Panthers 6-1. With the win the Rangers remained in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, now with 48 points on the season. The Blueshirts are 6-2-1 in their last nine games.
Henrik Lundqvist excelled between the pipes stopping 34 of 35 shots to earn his 20th victory of the season. Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard both scored two goals, Rick Nash scored a goal and added two assists, and Ryan Callahan---who before the game was named as the 2013 recipient of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award---notched a pair of assists.
After an 0-for-5 performance on the power play helped doom the Rangers in their previous game Tuesday in Philadelphia, the power play helped set the stage for Thrusday's win as the Rangers raced out to an early 2-0 lead before ten minutes had elapsed in the first period.
Brassard banged in a loose puck in front of the Panthers crease with Erik Gudbranson in the penalty box just 3:05 into the contest to give New York a crucial early lead. The goal was Brassard's ninth of the season and second as a Ranger, with Nash and Callahan earning the assists, and featuring some sloppy penalty killing work by the visitors.
Nash then made it 2-0 Rangers at 9:10 of the first period, zipping a right-circle shot off Scott Clemmensen's blocker and into the cage for his team-leading 18th goal of the season. Callahan earned the primary assist with Derek Stepan notching a helper as well on the Rangers second straight power play goal. It marked only the fourth time this season that the Rangers had scored more than one power play goal in a game.
To the Panthers credit they did not give in, and instead held their own at even strength against the Rangers. And when rookie sensation Jonathan Huberdeau danced around Zuccarello and finished with a wicked shot past Lundqvist at the 15:17 mark of the first period, Florida was only down a single goal.
The Rangers could not get the power play untracked in the second period, stymied twice in the first several minutes of the middle stanza, keeping it a one-goal game. Clemmensen did his part at even strength, too, with big-time saves on Callahan and Carl Hagelin during one scrum, another on a Zuccarello shot from the slot, and in the final seconds of the period a well-timed poke-check to thwart a Callahan breakaway.
However Zuccarello was able to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead with 3:26 to play in the second period by scoring a clutch goal. Ryane Clowe did the heavy lifting behind the Panthers net, and when the puck squirted out into the low slot Zuccarello was there to backhand it past a surprised Clemmensen.
Though the Panthers hung in there, Zuccarello's goal giving the Rangers a two-goal lead entering the third period was clearly a backbreaker. Lundqvist made a pair of flashy glove saves early in the final period to preserve the lead, and John Moore---in his first NHL regular season fight---drew a standing ovation from the Garden Faithful by hammering Jack Skille in a decidedly one-sided bout by the Rangers blueline at the 4:39 mark of the third period.
Zuccarello made it 4-1 with 4:49 left to play when a Brad Richards centering pass---after a steal and pretty rush up the ice by the Blueshirts alternate captain---caromed off his skate and over the goal line. It was Zuccarello's third goal in the past two games.
The floodgates opened, the Rangers poured it on. Brassard netted his second of the game, and 10th of the season, at 16:35. Michael Del Zotto, flying on left wing, fed a pass into the slot where Brassard whipped his shot past the beleagured Clemmensen. Then 2:01 later Richards scored his seventh goal of the season on a wraparound, and the Rangers had themselves an important 6-1 victory.
Brian Boyle did not play Thursday night due to an undisclosed lower body injury suffered Tuesday against the Flyers. Chris Kreider was called up from the Connecticut Whale and took his place in the lineup, skating on the fourth line with Darroll Powe and Arron Asham.