NEW YORK – A letdown would have been understandable one night after Nathan Horton and the Florida Panthers pulled out an overtime victory at Detroit.
Instead, it was the New York Rangers who finished the game with an empty feeling.
Horton, Jordan Leopold and Steven Reinprecht scored goals and Tomas Vokoun made 32 saves as the streaking Panthers beat the slumping Rangers 3-2 on Saturday night.
The Panthers showed no signs of fatigue, playing an up-tempo game from the start.
“We started off well,” Horton said. “That’s how we wanted to come out. I think we kind of surprised them with the way we were ready to play.”
Success seems to be fuelling the Panthers (10-9-2). Florida swept a three-game road trip that started with a 6-2 win at Buffalo on Wednesday.
“We’re feeling confident,” Horton said. “This was a big road trip against really good teams. It’s nice to get all three wins, but we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s only a start.”
Although the Rangers scored the only goal of the opening period, the Panthers were clearly the more energetic team.
“If we want to keep this thing going, we have to play like we did tonight and in Detroit and Buffalo,” said Panthers forward Radek Dvorak, formerly of the Rangers. “Knowing we have a chance to win every hockey game gives you confidence. We’ve been playing good lately, and that’s why we have a lot of energy.”
Vinny Prospal staked the Rangers to the lead with an unassisted goal at 14:11. Prospal intercepted a Florida attempt in the neutral zone and curled into the Panthers zone to fire a wrist shot from the left faceoff dot that dribbled past Vokoun’s left pad.
Aside from that lapse, Florida spent most of the period buzzing in the New York zone. Henrik Lundqvist had a busy period, making 12 saves. His best moment was a diving stop on Horton as he tried to finish a 2-on-1, give-and-go break with Michael Frolik. Lundqvist also caught a break when Reinprecht rang a power-play drive off the post.
Florida took charge in the second with Reinprecht and Leopold connecting to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead. Reinprecht pulled Florida even at 8:48 with a hard backhander from the slot.
The Panthers took the lead with a strange goal at 11:09. Defenceman Kenndal McArdle, fighting to control the puck at the right point, chopped it toward the Rangers net. The puck popped in the air with Leopold taking a swipe at it. He was credited with the goal after a video review determined that the shot was not directed in by a high stick.
“I just lost it,” Lundqvist said. “Guys were waving their sticks, and it just bounced in front of me.”
The Panthers appeared to put the game away when Horton, polishing off a 2-on-1 break with Stephen Weiss, gave Florida a 3-1 lead 2:35 into the third period.
As they have all season, the Rangers got a needed lift from Marian Gaborik. The star forward scored his team-leading 16th goal at 6:01 to cut the deficit back to one goal. Gaborik scored from the right circle at the end of a three-way passing play with defenceman Michal Rozsival and Prospal. It was his fifth goal in six games.
Gaborik’s goal energized the Rangers as they pressed for the equalizer. Vokoun held firm, making a diving pad stop on Sean Avery with two minutes left and denying Gaborik’s stuff try with 1 minute remaining.
The Rangers’ fourth loss in five games kept these teams moving in opposite directions After a slow start, the Panthers have won eight of 11 (8-2-1). The Rangers, 7-1 to open the season, dropped their third straight at Madison Square Garden.
John Tortorella, the Rangers’ sometimes fiery coach, took the latest loss calmly.
“You stay with it.” Tortorella said. “You just keep trying to battle through this. I wish I could tell you how to get out of it. The only way I know is for the team to stay together. We have to have a little bit of resiliency. It is a miserable time, but you have to come to work and fight your way through.”
NOTES: The Rangers are still missing centres Brandon Dubinsky (wrist) and Chris Drury (concussion). Drury has resumed workouts. … Panthers LW David Booth is also sidelined by a concussion. LW Cory Stillman missed the game because of a knee injury sustained Friday. … Vokoun got the start after Scott Clemmensen made 39 saves against Detroit. … The game kicked off a stretch of five games in eight nights for the Rangers.