PANTHERS 4, RANGERS 3
NEW YORK – It has been a few games since the Panthers had a two goal lead on an opponent, but it hasn't been so long ago that they forgot how to squander such a cushion.
On Tuesday night, the Rangers became the latest team to erase a two-goal deficit against a Florida team that simply cannot put teams away.
This time, however, it was the Panthers who were the ones making the late push as they held on for a 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden after Mike Weaver's long shot toward the net deflected off a New York defender and floated past the goalie for the winning goal.
Weaver's fortunate goal came on Florida's first shot of the third period with 8:19 remaining in regulation. It also came on the Panthers only – as in one – shot of the third period. And had the puck not bounced past the goalie, it wouldn't have counted as a shot at all since it was way wide of the net.
“I was relieved to see it. We were up 3-1 and they scored back-to-back,'' Weaver said. “It was great to see that goal. Thank God.''
The Panthers led 3-1 going into the third but watched the Rangers score twice off six shot within the first 3:05 to tie things up. It looked like it was going to be another meltdown by the Panthers, although Weaver's fluke goal took some weight off and Tomas Vokoun was strong the rest of the night. Vokoun stopped 32 shots as he helped the Panthers snap a four-game losing streak.
Since Dec. 31, the Panthers had taken at least a two-goal lead in eight games – failing to hold that lead in seven of them.
“Our goalie won us this game,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “There's been a few nights this year that we left the building with no points after outplaying an opponent. We were on the other end of that. Those kind of things sometimes even out. We got outplayed for big stretches of the game and probably didn't deserve to be in the spot we were. We'll take it. Our goalie was our best player and it was enough.''
Florida can finish strong heading into the All-Star break as it has gone 4-1-3 since Jan. 11. A win or point in Boston on Wednesday night should keep general manager Dale Tallon from making any sort of a seller's move during the break in the schedule.
The Panthers haven't made the playoffs in a decade and still have acres of ground to make up to get close to the eighth spot. DeBoer doesn't even want to talk about such things.
“We're just putting our heads down and trying to win as many games as we can,'' he said.
The night started off well for the Panthers as Rostislav Olesz gave Florida a 1-0 lead by whipping the puck past goalie Henrik Lundqvist at 7:25 of the first on Florida's third shot of the night. The Panthers had just four shots in the entire opening period.
“We wanted to jump on them but they jumped on us,'' Olesz said. “It was good for us to get the lead, to settle things down. We finished the first period strong. This was a good win for us but a strange one. Hey, we've lost games where we were the better team. That's how it works sometimes. We battled through. That was the biggest thing.''
New York bounced back and tied it in the second on Derek Stepan's goal, with Florida quickly answering as defenseman Keaton Ellerby picked up his first NHL goal less than a minute later. The locals turned on Lundqvist when Mike Santorelli made it 3-1 on Florida's next shot – his 13th goal of the year coming 1:08 after Ellerby's.
Florida held the 3-1 lead going into the third, although the Rangers would make up lost ground quickly.
A long shot from Michael Sauer was deflected by Brandon Prust just 1:14 into the third, with Brian Boyle tying it by knocking a loose puck past Tomas Vokoun on a power play at 3:05 of the period.
The Panthers did just about nothing on the offensive side of the ice throughout the entire third period, but Weaver's shot found the back of Artem Anisimov and bounced over Lundqvist's head and to the back of the net.
“Hey,'' Weaver said, “we'll take 'em any way we can.''
Dmitry Kulikov was cleared to play by the Panthers team trainer after Tuesday's morning skate and was back in the lineup against the Rangers. Kulikov missed the past two games after injuring his upper rib cage. Kulikov says the pain of breathing was gone and felt confident the padding he was wearing would protect him during hits.
Kulikov said after Monday's practice that he probably would not play.
-- Chris Higgins was back at Madison Square Garden for the first time since the Rangers traded him to Calgary at last year's trade deadline. Higgins missed Florida's past eight games with a hamstring injury and says he hopes to help the Panthers pick up some wins and get back into the playoff hunt. Florida came into the day eight points behind Atlanta for the final spot with four games in hand on the Thrashers.
-- With Higgins and Kulikov back in, DeBoer had some decisions to make with the lineup. Darcy Hordichuk was back in after being scratched the past two games with DeBoer benching the slumping Steve Bernier.
Bernier had two goals with an assist in his first game back from orbital bone surgery in December, but he only has one goal in the 24 games since. His assist Sunday was his first point in 16 games as he has seen his playing time diminish.
The Panthers acquired Bernier, Michael Grabner and a first round pick from Vancouver in exchange for Keith Ballard at the June draft. Bernier and Ballard have struggled, although Grabner – waived by Florida after training camp and claimed by the Islanders – has 14 goals and 19 points in 43 games. That would rank him eighth on the Panthers in scoring.
WEDNESDAY: PANTHERS AT BRUINS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; TD Garden, Boston
TV/Radio: FSNF; WFTL 640
The series: Tied 30-30-6
The game: This is both team's final game before going into the All-Star break. The Panthers plan to hold their next practice Monday afternoon in Toronto before embarking on another three-game road trip. .-.-. The Bruins have won all three games against the Panthers this season. .-.-. After getting off to a torrid start, former Panthers winger Nathan Horton has definitely cooled off. Horton has one goal this month and has gone nine straight games without scoring one.
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Luck in the City: Mike Weaver's Odd Goal Lifts Florida Panthers to 4-3 Win over Rangers
PANTHERS 4, RANGERS 3