PANTHERS 3, RANGERS 0
With the way things have been going for the Florida Panthers, Chris Higgins' third period goal Sunday afternoon was more than welcomed.
“It was massive,'' Stephen Weiss said.
Higgins goal against his former teammates gave the Panthers some much needed breathing room as it gave them a two-goal lead. With Tomas Vokoun on, that was more than enough to lead Florida to a 3-0 win over the Rangers in front of an announced 16,752 at BankAtlantic Center.
The Panthers had lost their previous two home games in overtime despite leading both the Bruins and Canadiens at some point in the game.
On Friday, Florida led the Canadiens 2-0 in the second before Montreal tied it by the end of the period and won in overtime 3-2. Sunday, Higgins' goal gave Florida a 2-0 lead with 11:10 remaining. Weiss ended all doubt by sliding in an empty net goal on a Rangers power play chance in which New York had two more skaters on the ice than Florida.
Higgins' goal was a beauty as well. After picking off the puck deep in the Florida zone, Higgins raced up with Michael Frolik on a 2-on-1 chance. After Michael Del Zotto dove in front of Higgins, he declined the cross-ice pass and simply went around the downed Rangers and walked in on the goalie and fired.
“Everyone knew we needed another goal to feel comfortable, make it a little easier on Vokoun,'' said Higgins, who was traded from the Rangers to Calgary last season before signing with Florida as a free agent over the summer. “It went in and I'm real thrilled with the win. It feels good to happen in a win, that's the most important thing. We need a big second half, we have a lot of games on home ice. Hopefully this jump starts us.''
Coach Pete DeBoer placed much of Friday's blame on his forwards, saying they didn't create much of anything and basically left Vokoun out to dry. That wasn't the case Sunday as Florida came to play and had a number of good chances against backup goalie Martin Biron.
The Rangers, coming off a 2-1 overtime loss in Tampa on Saturday, didn't look as crisp as usual and didn't challenge Vokoun all that much. The Rangers had been 9-0 in the second game of a back-to-back set.
“That's maybe a page we can take out of their book,'' Weiss said. “Keep teams to the outside and block shots on back-to-back games when you don't have your best legs. That's when you really have to focus on the little things defensively, and that can be the difference in winning and losing.''
Vokoun did make a huge point-blank save off a Brandon Prust shot after he stole the puck deep in the zone from Marty Reasoner. Had Prust scored, it would have tied the score.
Prust's shot came not long after a goal from Cory Stillman was disallowed after he appeared to kick the puck past Biron. Stillman's initial shot was blocked by the goalie, but the puck trickled back and Stillman got his skate on it, popping it through. Biron shot up and complained immediately and video judges in Toronto agreed Stillman used a distinct kicking motion.
Just over five minutes later, Higgins got his sixth goal of the year and all was good again.
“He's had a lot of chances and it was a big game for him and for us in general,'' DeBoer said. “The forwards bounced back.''
Florida led 1-0 in the second period when David Booth picked up his second power play goal of the season. Mike Santorelli got things started by firing a shot that Biron deflected. Rostislav Olesz whiffed on the puck as it came back through the slot, but Booth pounced on it and sent it to the back of the net for the first lead.
Vokoun got his fifth shutout of the season and 43rd of his career by stopping 32 shots. Vokoun stopped 45 shots in each of his past three starts. With the Panthers schedule getting tougher, expect backup Scott Clemmensen to start Monday in Carolina to give Vokoun a day of rest. After Monday, the Panthers will have played three games in four days -- and have five games on the docket this week.
“If you can get those kind of games out of your backup goalie, it allows you to give your starter some needed rest,'' DeBoer said, referring to Biron while referencing Clemmensen.
-- The Panthers are 17-17-2, the first time they are at the .500 mark in the win-loss column since Nov. 20 when they were 9-9-0.
-- Winger Steven Reinprecht cleared waivers on Saturday and the Panthers are now weighing their options. Florida would like to trade Reinprecht, but because he has another year left on his salary, that probably will not happen.
The Panthers could assign Reinprecht to their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., as early as Monday. Florida could also allow Reinprecht's agent to find him a spot on a European professional team and then loan him out. The Panthers are still responsible for Reinprecht's NHL salary.
Reinprecht, who has just eight goals and 11 assists in his past 70 games dating to Jan. 3, 2010, signed a three-year deal with the team worth $2.05 million annually, in 2009.
MONDAY: PANTHERS AT HURRICANES
When, Where: 7 p.m.; RBC Center, Raleigh, N.C.
TV/Radio: No local TV; WQAM 560
The series: Hurricanes lead 46-33-11
The game: The Hurricanes have won three straight games and currently lead the Panthers by four points in the Southeast Division. Since moving into the RBC Center, the Hurricanes own the Panthers, going 25-5-2. Carolina won all three games in Raleigh last year and 20 of the past 22. Florida is 1-2 against Carolina this season, with the most recent loss a 4-3 decision on Dec.15 in which the Panthers held a 3-0 lead just minutes into the game. The Panthers are 2-5 in the second game of back-to-backs this season, with one of those losses coming to the Hurricanes.