By Jim Cerny, BlueshirtsUnited.com
Almost exactly one month to the day that he stymied the Rangers with a 44-save effort at Madison Square Garden, Florida Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom was at it again frustrating the Rangers Tuesday night at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, FL. This time Markstrom stopped 36 shots as the Panthers denied the Rangers an opportunity to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, beating New York 3-2.
The loss came on a night that the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets were defeated by the Washington Capitals, leaving the Rangers two points from clinching a playoff spot. However Markstrom and his Panthers teammates made sure there would be no celebration by the visitors on their home ice, as Floirda snapped its own season-worst six-game losing streak.
Though not as spectacular when he stopped 44 of 45 Ranger shots in a 3-1 Panthers victory on March 21st, Markstrom excelled again on Tuesday in vanquishing the Rangers. He made nine saves in the first period, 12 in the second, and 15 in the third.
After being held off the scoreboard for more than 42 minutes, the Rangers finally solved Markstrom at the 2:35 mark of the third period. Mats Zuccarello sprung a speeding John Moore through center ice with a pass up left wing. Moore drove to the net and had his shot stopped by Markstrom's right pad. Zuccarello and Taylor Pyatt converged on the loose puck and Pyatt chipped it over the goal line for his sixth goal of the season---and second in as many games.
But the Rangers good feeling was short-lived as Brad Richards was whistled for a tripping penalty at 6:43 and the Panthers converted for a power play goal at 7:37. Marcel Goc redirected a Tomas Fleischmann pass/shot past Henrik Lundqvist for his eighth goal, restoring Florida's one-goal advantage.
Lundqvist made a sensational right pad save to rob Jack Skille with a bit more than nine minutes remaining in the third period to keep the score 2-1. But the Panthers scored a shorthanded empty-net goal with 1:23 to play and Jonathan Huberdeau in the penalty box to finish off the Rangers despite a Derick Brassard goal which came with 32.9 seconds left to play.
Though the Rangers dominated territorially and in shots on goal, it was Florida which took a 1-0 lead into the second intermission, courtesy of a Fleischmann goal 5:04 into the middle period. And though the Rangers had a large 21-8 advantage in shots, many of them were long-range shots, and many were put right into the chest of Markstrom. Very few came on rebounds or in-tight, though Markstrom did make a standout stop on Pyatt's spinning backhand shot from the slot late in the second period.
The Panthers also clogged the neutral zone, often dropping four men along the red line, especially after taking the 1-0 lead. It made for a difficult night for the Rangers, who did gain offensive zone entry on several occasions thanks to the speed of Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin.
After the Rangers outshot the Panthers 9-2 in a scoreless first period, Fleischmann opened the scoring just past the five minute mark of the second. Panthers defenseman Filip Kuba fired a pinpoint shot from the left point through a maze of players in front of a screened Lundqvist and Fleischmann deflected the puck into the cage for his tenth goal of the season.
Fleischmann's goal was extremely frustrating for the Rangers for many reasons, not the least of which was that Florida had only three shots through the first 25:04 the game, yet owned a 1-0 lead. Later in the second period Lundqvist made an awkward save on Kuba's tricky left wing shot through traffic again, falling to the ice and squeezing the puck to his body. Lundqvist also made a flashy glove save on Brian Campbell's blast midway through the period.
The Rangers have two games remaining on their schedule---Thursday in Carolina and Saturday at home against New Jersey, while Winnipeg has one game remaining. Any combination of points gained by the Rangers or lost by the Jets totaling two and the Ranghers would clinch their third straight trip to the post-season.