NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers knew it was a trap game. They discussed it, prepared for it and said there was no way they were going to take the Florida Panthers lightly.
Yet midway through the third period Tuesday night, there were the Rangers seemingly daring a deadly, pressure-sensitive trap to snap around their necks. Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun was standing on his head in a scoreless game that had all the makings of a head-shaking, disappointing loss for a Rangers team desperately clinging to a playoff spot.
Instead, some hard work by Artem Anisimov, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky concluded with Dubinsky breaking the scoreless tie with 12:11 left in regulation to help the Rangers sidestep the ambush and earn a hard-fought 1-0 win at Madison Square Garden.
Vokoun was 30-for-30 before Dubinsky's 22nd of the year, which started with Anisimov controlling the puck with his skates in high traffic in the slot. He moved the puck over to Callahan, who pulled Vokoun out of the crease. Instead of shooting, Callahan slid the puck to the top of the crease to Dubinsky, who tapped home his goal past an out-of-position Vokoun.
"That line played well all night long," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "They came up empty a number of times, but they grinded. To beat Vokoun tonight, it was going to have to be a play like that. The first shot, he was gobbling up. He wasn't leaving any rebounds. It wasn't going to have to be a play of some misdirection and some patience."
"It's a pretty good feeling to bury it here," Dubinsky said. "We were buzzing around for most of the night. We knew we were going to get one and we capitalized on it."
Despite the win, the Rangers didn't get any help from the teams chasing them in the standings. They have 84 points and moved within three points of the Montreal Canadiens for sixth place, but wins by the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres (81 points) and ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes (78 points) prevented the Rangers from improving their cushion on a playoff spot.
The Rangers had every reason to not bring their best Tuesday. They were riding a season-high four-game winning streak and coming off an emotional 5-2 victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday. There was potential for a sagging effort against the Panthers, who are 14th in the East.
But the Rangers controlled the play throughout and didn't have a drop in energy during their penalty-free performance. It was just a matter of solving Vokoun, who was on top of his game from start to finish.
"The last few games, we have scored a lot of goals and we have been winning a lot," said Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who showed no ill effects from an elbow he received from the Penguins' Matt Cooke on Sunday that resulted in at least a 14-game suspension. "Tonight just shows that you have to win hockey games in different ways down in the end here."
The Rangers scored 17 goals in their three previous victories. On Tuesday, they only needed one because goaltender Henrik Lundqvist made 22 saves for his League-high 10th shutout of the season.
Lundqvist was about as busy as a sand salesman in a desert, but he had to make two saves in the final 25 seconds with Vokoun on the bench for an extra attacker. Lundqvist didn't get credit for a save, but he stood his ground with 10.8 seconds remaining as a bad-angle shot ricocheted off bodies in front and glanced off the post.
"You have to find a way to score goals," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "We just didn't do that."
"It is going to come down to low-scoring games, so you have to be sharp," Lundqvist said. "We didn't get frustrated. It's easy to get frustrated in a game like this. They key is being mentally sharp."
For much of last season, when the Rangers missed the playoffs by a single point, that wasn't the case. Victories turned into overtime losses, and tie games late turned into regulation losses that cost the Rangers important points.
When things didn't go well, players seemed to get away from the system. Through 74 games this season, that hasn't been the case.
"We're doing a lot better job of sticking with the game plan," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "We're not getting frustrated, not trying to do stuff ourselves, sticking with what works. We've been winning some games here, playing well as a team and getting the job done."
The Rangers' focus will be tested again Thursday when the Ottawa Senators, sitting in last place in the East, come to MSG before the start of a four-game road trip with stops in Boston, Buffalo and Philadelphia.
The trap will only be more dangerous with the Senators.
"There are no bad teams in this League," Girardi said. "No game is an easy game. Ottawa has some young guys that are playing loose and playing well. We just have to take it one game at a time."
Defenseman Marc Staal, who missed his second straight game Tuesday, is considered day-to-day.