2014 was most definitely a memorable year for the New York Rangers, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final last spring as the true highlight, and the Blueshirts ended the year on a positive note Wednesday night, skating to a New Year's Eve 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center.
New York closed out the calendar year by winning nine of its last ten games. After having its season-high eight-game winning streak snapped in Dallas Monday night, New York put forth a much more complete effort against a much-improved Panthers team to get right back on the winning track Wednesday.
Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider, and Martin St. Louis all scored a goal and added an assist, while Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore also tallied goals for the Rangers, while Derek Stepan added a pair of assists. Henrik Lundqvist was solid between the pipes finishing with 18 saves.
After a bit of a sluggish start, in which they iced the puck twice on the opening shift and four times over the first few minutes of the game, the Rangers took control of the first period, and eventually opened the scoring at the 16:42 mark. Kreider, who minutes before had streaked in on left wing and just missed wide when he broke to the net, scored his sixth goal of the season by hammering a rebound past Florida goalie Al Montoya, the former Rangers first round pick. The goal was just Kreider's second in the last 20 games.
Though neither Matt Hunwick nor St. Louis received points on the play, both played key roles in the game's first goal with Hunwick carrying the puck in deep and centering to St. Louis, who in turn curled with the puck back towards the blue line to open up space before laying it off to Kevin Klein. It was Klein's slap shot which hit Stepan in front, with the puck dropping at Kreider's skates, that led directly to the goal.
Hunwick was reinserted into the lineup by head coach Alain Vigneault after being a healthy scratch two straight. He took the place of John Moore in the lineup after Dan Girardi was cleared to play despite having a sore foot after blocking a pass Monday night. Vigneault also scratched Tanner Glass on Wednesday, putting Jesper Fast back into the lineup--and putting him on the third line for the first time this season. Lee Stempniak dropped down to the fourth line and helped form a very active and effective unit along with J.T. Miller and Dominic Moore.
After scoring the only goal of the first period and outshooting Florida 12-7 along the way, New York outshot the Panthers 12-5 in the second period and increased its lead to 3-1. Brassard scored just 1:29 into the middle period, burying the rebound of a McDonagh shot from left wing into a gaping net for his ninth goal of the season; and then McDonagh scored a power play goal at 14:28 to put the Rangers up 3-0.
McDonagh's goal was unassisted, and was a terrific one-man show. Florida's Tomas Fleischmann tried to clear the puck out of his zone, but McDonagh performed acrobatics to flag the puck down, and after he settled it, McDonagh hammered a slap shot through a screen set up in front by Miller for his third goal of the season.
Fleischmann redeemed himself a bit just two minutes ten seconds later when he beat Lundqvist on a breakaway. Jonathan Huberdeau fired a long home run pass over two blue lines and Fleischmann slipped behind Klein before beating Lundqvist with a forehand finish.
Jimmy Hayes, older brother of New York's Kevin Hayes, then snapped a power play goal past Lundqvist 7:39 into the third period to cut the Rangers' lead to 3-2. Marc Staal, who was in the penalty box at the time, was extremely angry at the high sticking call made by the officials just 27 seconds earlier, but it was to no avail as the call, and subsequent goal, stood.
However St. Louis was credited with his 12th goal at 9:51 of the third to reestablish New York's two-goal lead. After Montoya robbed Stepan in front, the puck caromed off St. Louis' skate, and then off of Montoya before crossing the goal line as the Rangers grabbed a 4-2 lead.
Six minutes later St. Louis was stoned on a breakaway by Montoya, but Dominic Moore followed the play and banged home the rebound at 15:35 to give the Rangers a 5-2 lead.
A positive ending to 2014 hopefully gives way to an equally positive start to 2015 when the Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden in their next game Saturday night.