NEW YORK - At this time a week ago, the New York Rangers were at rock bottom. They put forth an uninspired effort in a home loss to the rival Islanders, their eighth setback in nine games. Rangers coach John Tortorella lost his cool afterward, delivering an expletive-laced tirade about his team's poor performance.
The message seems to have gotten across.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist continued his dazzling play in December and theNew York Rangers won their fourth straight since Tortorella's explosion, beating the Florida Panthers 4-1 Wednesday night to snap a five-game losing streak at MadisonSquareGarden.
Marian Gaborik scored his League-leading 26th goal of the season, but the Rangers also received contributions from the supporting cast. Vinny Prospal snapped a 14-game goal drought by scoring twice, and captain Chris Drury also got on the board with his fifth of the season.
All in all, Tortorella enjoyed the "complete effort" his team gave him heading into the two-day Christmas break.
"I think the last couple games, we've played really well," Tortorella said. "I thought tonight was a complete game. We had some breakdowns, we gave up a couple odd-man rushes, but (Lundqvist) stood tall. I thought it was more of a complete game than we played in a long time.
"These games before your break, you don't want them to think it's Christmas too early. And I thought we played well and deserved to win the hockey game."
Lundqvist earned first-star honors by making 33 saves to improve to 16-13-3. In 10 games this month, he's allowed more than two goals only twice -- and in both instances the opposition managed just three.
The presumptive starting goalie for Sweden at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was at his best during a busy second period, when he stopped all 15 Florida shots. His best save came off one of those breakdowns mentioned by Tortorella: He robbed Michael Frolik with a glove save on a 2-on-1 rush to keep the Rangers ahead by a goal.
"He has been our backbone all year," Rangers winger Ryan Callahan said of Lundqvist. "He comes up with some key stops tonight. That is why he is what he is."
Florida's Victor Oreskovich, who scored the Panthers' lone goal, said Lundqvist made the difference.
''As a team, I thought we played really well,'' Oreskovich said. ''There is not much you can do when a goalie is playing that well.''
Lundqvist said Tortorella's comments a week earlier appear to have had a positive effect on the Rangers.
"I want to believe that talk was good in a lot of ways," Lundqvist said. "We had a really good talk the next day, just the players. We were talking about playing with a little more emotion and getting more involved physically. I think the last four wins we've been more aggressive, more physical and the pucks start to bounce our way a little bit more. A couple things have been a lot better lately.
"In hockey you need that edge to be aggressive -- play physical and a lot of good things will happen for you."
Good things happened Wednesday for Prospal, who scored the game-winning goal early in the second period, then gave the Rangers a little breathing room with a power-play goal 23 seconds into the third period. His last previous goal came, coincidentally, in a 3-2 home loss to these very same Panthers on Nov. 21.
The look of relief on Prospal's face after the game was for real.
"It's been some time," Prospal said of the drought. "Any player is going to tell you that they are going to press a little more. There were games when I had glorious chances and I wasn't able to put them in. It feels great for me."
The Panthers jumped on top early when Oreskovich jammed home a rebound 4:09 into the first period. But Drury responded 2:13 later to draw the Rangers even on a play that was started with some great hustle by Enver Lisin.
Sean Avery fired an errant pass that was set to be an icing, but Panthers defenseman Bryan Allen took a bad angle to the puck. Lisin beat him to it, then found Drury in the slot for a one-timer that went through Tomas Vokoun.
"I thought he played really well," Tortorella said of Lisin, a young forward who's spent some time in the coach's doghouse this season. "You look at his speed and if he does the other things, maybe he can start producing. I thought that was a pretty good line, him, Avery and Drury."
The game remained tied until 4:55 of the second period, when Prospal's first of the night gave the Rangers the lead for good.
With Gregory Campbell in the box for Florida, Gaborik came out from behind the net and was denied on a stuff attempt. But Vokoun pushed the rebound out of a pile of skates and right to Prospal, who buried it for a power-play goal to make it 2-1.
Gaborik put the Rangers ahead 4-1 with a beauty of a short-handed breakaway goal late in the third period to put the cherry on top of a key home win before the holiday respite.
The Panthers finished their three-game road swing at 1-2-0 and won't return from the holiday break until Sunday when they host the Boston Bruins. The Rangers will get another chance to make their presence felt at home when the Islanders come calling.
"We haven't won consistently here," Tortorella said of his team, which is just 8-9-1 at MSG. "You are not going to get where you want to be if you don't establish yourself at home. I thought we did it the right way tonight. We have quite a few home games coming up here, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction."
|Victor Oreskovich (2) ASST: Dominic Moore (6), Gregory Campbell (5)|
1 - 0 FLA
|Chris Drury (5) ASST: Enver Lisin (6), Sean Avery (10)|
1 - 1 Tie
|PPG - Vinny Prospal (7) ASST: Ryan Callahan (9), Marian Gaborik (23)|
2 - 1 NYR
|Vinny Prospal (8) ASST: Brandon Dubinsky (10), Marc Staal (10)|
3 - 1 NYR
|SHG - Marian Gaborik (26) ASST: Chris Drury (8)|
4 - 1 NYR
|Marian Gaborik Hooking against Keith Ballard|
|Mike Duco Tripping against Enver Lisin|
|Marian Gaborik Slashing against Michael Frolik|
|Gregory Campbell Charging against Michal Rozsival|
|Keith Ballard Tripping against Sean Avery|
|Dan Girardi Hooking against Michael Frolik|
|Bryan McCabe Hooking against Ryan Callahan|
|Dan Girardi Tripping against Mike Duco|
|Sean Avery Roughing against Dominic Moore|
|Dominic Moore Roughing against Sean Avery|
|Bryan McCabe Roughing against Sean Avery|
|Sean Avery Roughing against Bryan McCabe|