It wasn't always pretty Monday night at Madison Square Garden, but in the end it was another pair of valuable points earned by the Rangers, who beat the Florida Panthers 6-3. The victory puts the Rangers ten points clear of ninth-place Florida in the Eastern Conference standings.
"It was an important game, and it was right there in the third period," explained goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 33 saves in the victory. "We definitely wanted to separate ourselves from them even more and put them further behind us, so this was good for us."
After letting a two-goal lead evaporate in the second period, the Rangers caught a break in the third to take a 4-3 lead when Dan Boyle's centering pass deflected off the stick of Florida team captain Willie Mitchell and into the Panthers net at 8:10. Boyle was credited with his sixth goal of the season, and second in as many games, and the Blueshirts were on their way to holding off a hungry Panthers squad.
Mats Zuccarello buried a shot from in close with under five minutes to play to give the home team more breathing room. The goal was Zuccarello's eighth of the season, and first in 11 games. It was also only his second goal in his last 21 games.
"I'm more of a passer so I don't really care who scores, but I can feel the pressure from you guys and everyone around to score some goals so obviously I'd like to score more goals, as well," Zuccarello told reporters with a smile after the game. "It's nice to get a goal now and then."
Moments later Carl Hagelin was pulled down on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot, but he was stopped by Florida netminder Roberto Luongo. However Rick Nash scored his second goal of the night, this one into an empty net with 1:53 to play, to put the game away.
"It was a huge game for them, and a huge game for us," stated Nash, who recorded his sixth multiple-goal game of the season on Monday. "We are getting to that point of the season where we've got to be desperate for points. You look at the schedule and you are playing almost every other night, so to have this little home stand, we want to put some wins together."
The Rangers, who have won two straight after losing their first two games following the All Star break, had found themselves deadlocked with the Panthers at three apiece through two periods of play, letting a 3-1 second-period lead slip away by allowing a pair of goals in under three minutes late in the period.
There were moments of strong play by the Rangers, who scored three goals on their first 14 shots against Luongo, but there was never any long stretches of solid sustained play until the third period. In short the first two periods were quite similar to the largely uneven play the team has shown since the All Star break.
"I thought we stuck with it," said head coach Alain Vigneault. "When the game was on the line in the third period I thought we played our best period of the night. It's about finding ways to win and that's what we did tonight."
A Blueshirts turnover to the side of Lundqvist's net led directly to the game-opening goal by Florida just 4:09 into the first period. Brad Boyes was credited with the takeaway and the assist after he fed the puck to a wide-open Aleksander Barkov, who drilled his sixth goal of the season into the cage.
It appeared things could get worse before they'd get better for the Rangers when Dan Girardi was whistled for a tripping penalty at 7:49, but one minute into the penalty kill Nash changed the whole momentum by scoring an unassisted shorthanded goal at 8:49, tying the score at 1-1.
Nash took the puck away in the neutral zone, left prized 18 year-old rookie Aaron Ekblad grasping at air, and proceeded to beat Luongo on a breakaway, deking to his right before finishing to his left. The goal was Nash's 30th this season, the eighth time in his 12-year career he has reached that milestone and the first time he has done so as a Ranger. It was also his fourth shorthanded goal this season, tying him for the league lead in that category.
"It's a nice accomplishment," Nash said of reaching the 30-goal plateau. "It just shows how good my linemates are and how good the team is doing. Personal success always comes after team success."
The Rangers scored the next two goals of the contest in the second period and seemingly had the game under control. Kevin Hayes whisked a power play one-timer past Luongo at 2:51, his first career power play goal and seventh overall this season, to give New York its first lead of the night. Then at 9:28 Jesper Fast chased down a loose puck on left wing and made a slick cross-ice pass to Marc Staal, who rocketed his third goal into the back of the net, giving New York a 3-1 lead at 9;28.
Instead of keeping their foot on the gas pedal the Rangers instead let Florida back in the game, with the Panthers recording the next eight shots on goal, and scoring twice to tie things up with 4:30 to play in the second period. Dave Bolland batted a puck out of mid-air and into the cage at 12:51 to give Florida renewed life; and then Bolland set up Brandon Pirri for a power play goal at 15:30 to tie the game.
Right before those two goals were scored Lundqvist made his best save of the night, stoning Jonathan Huberdeau's mini break-in with a terrific pad stop. Luongo made his biggest save three minutes into the third period, robbing Lee Stempniak's point-blank try from the top of the crease to keep the score tied.
New York would keep up the pressure on the visitors, though, peppering Luongo with 21 shots in the third period alone, eventually breaking through with the Boyle, Zuccarello, and Nash goals.
"Games go up and down, and sometimes you get away with it, but today we didn't when they scored those two goals there," explained Zuccarello. "We found a way to come back, and good teams do that. Good teams win on an average day, so we have to take the win and be happy with it."
The Rangers close out their four-game home stand Wednesday night when they host the Boston Bruins.