The Rangers rallied from a late third-period deficit and closed out calendar year 2013 with a 2-1 shootout victory over the Florida Panthers in a New Year's Eve clash Tuesday night at the BB&T Center. The win lifted New York to a 20-19-2 record through 41 games, the official midpoint of the 2013-14 season.
Brad Richards scored in the third round of the shootout, while Henrik Lundqvist stopped all three Panthers shooters to give the Rangers their 12th road victory of the season.
Trailing 1-0 and with time winding down in regulation, Dan Girardi atoned for an earlier mistake by tying the game with his third goal of the season. Girardi wired a wrist shot past Tim Thomas from the left circle after Derek Stepan had fed him the puck from behind the goal line to pull the Rangers even with only 2:10 left to play in the thid period.
Stepan nearly won the game in overtime when he took off on a 2-on-1 break with Rick Nash, and fired a hard low shot from right wing which forced Thomas into making a difficult save. Later in the overtime period, Ryan McDonagh had a pair of glorious chances to win the game, but was denied both times by Thomas, who finished the game with 29 saves while playing in his 400th National Hockey League game.
Marc Staal and Anton Stralman both returned to the Rangers lineup following injury absences. Staal had sat out ten straight games following a concussion, while Stralman did not play Sunday in Tampa because of a sore left wrist. The two paired together often during the game, though Staal began the game alongside rookie Conor Allen and Stralman was paired with John Moore. Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk were both scratched to make room for Staal and Stralman.
Staal played 23 minutes 45 seconds, while Stralman logged 21:29 as head coach ALain Vigneault leaned heavily on his four most experienced defensemen while chasing a one-goal deficit and through overtime. Girardi played a team-high 28:18, while McDonagh finished with 28:10.
As the game progressed and it became clear that goals were going to be at a premium, the pressure to score the first goal mounted for both teams. Nearly halfway through the contest that first goal finally came, with a Rangers defensive zone turnover leading directly a Panthers score at 9:18 of the second period.
Girardi lost the puck behind his own net and 18 year-old rookie Aleksander Barkov picked it off behind the goal line for Florida. Barkov quickly fed Brad Boyes in front, and Boyes made a slick move to open up Lundqvist, at which time he slid the puck under the Ranger goalie's pads for his tenth goal of the season and a 1-0 Panthers lead.
Interestingly Lundqvist later stopped Boyes in the third round of the shootout after Richards had scored for New York to seal the victory.
The Rangers had their chances--especially in the second period---but were held without a goal heading into the second intermission. After going 3-for-3 on the power play in Sunday's 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers failed to score on any of their three opportunities in the second period Tuesday against the NHL's 30th ranked penalty killing unit, despite numerous prime opportunities.
There were a string of close calls for the Rangers on the power play with Mats Zuccarello, Stepan, and Nash having some of the best chances, but Thomas was sharp and the Rangers pushed the few rebounds they had wide of the cage. The closest the Rangers came to scoring through 40 minutes came 5:29 into the first period when Dominic Moore's backhand shot from right wing caught iron after beating Thomas.
Though beaten on Boyes' sweet finish in the second period, Lundqvist was extremely solid, making six saves in the first period and eight more in the middle twenty minutes, before finishing with 21 on the night. With his team down 1-0 late in the second Lundqvist made a sensational glove save on a Brian Campbell slap shot from left wing which seemed ticketed for the far top corner of the net. Then early in the third Lundqvist was forced to change direction on a shot that was deflected in front by Nick Bjugstad and ended up making a terrific lunging pad save, again to keep the Rangers within a goal of their hosts.
Finally, right before the buzzer sounded signalling the end to overtime, Lundqvist made one last big-time stop on Tomas Kopecky, setting the stage for the winning shootout. New York is now 3-1 in shootouts this season, with Lundqvist posting a 2-1 record and Cam Talbot recording the other victory.
In the third period the Rangers faced a four-minute Panthers power play when Richards was assessed a double minor for high sticking at 7:47. Lundqvist was forced to make only one save as the visitors did an outstanding job on the penalty kill to remain within striking distance of Florida.
The Rangers will begin the second half of their season on Friday night when they skate against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.