NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers clinched their playoff spot last season on March 19, with 10 games remaining in their schedule. The winning goal in that postseason-clinching 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils was scored by Mats Zuccarello.
Almost exactly 13 months later, with the Rangers battling to retain the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Norwegian wing again played a pivotal role, along with a few new faces.
Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, neither of whom was on the Rangers' roster three weeks ago, each scored twice as New York cruised to a 6-1 win against the Florida Panthers on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
Rick Nash, another player who wasn't on the Rangers team that advanced to Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, scored a goal and added two assists while Brad Richards completed the six-goal onslaught. The six goals exceeded the Rangers' combined total from their previous three games.
"As long as we win, we're happy. But obviously you want to contribute. To get goals gives you some confidence," said Zuccarello, who didn't join the Rangers this season until March 20 after playing for Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League. "There's a lot of good players here. We just have to calm down and play our game."
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 34 shots for the win, which kept the Rangers in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers' 48 points leaves them three behind the seventh-place New York Islanders and even with the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets, who have played one more game.
The Panthers have dropped four in a row. They host the Rangers next Thursday, and coach Kevin Dineen is hoping for a better effort.
"You lose by five goals, it's pretty hard to put anything [positive] to it," a disappointed Dineen said. "It's a results business. Tonight is another example that we have to be a lot better."
Brassard, another recent addition who was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the NHL Trade Deadline, opened the scoring with Erik Gudbranson serving a penalty for concealing the puck with his hand. Following a missed Ryan Callahan shot, the 25-year-old center pounced on a loose puck at the side of the crease and beat Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen.
"We just moved around. The bottom line is we made plays and we executed," said Brassard, who with his current four-game point streak appears rejuvenated since coming to New York. "I feel comfortable. I want to be a part of the success we have here. I know I can help. I want to bring that energy for the rest of the five games we have here."
The goal came 3:05 into the contest and was the first power-play goal in four games for the Rangers. They needed just six minutes to get another one -- with Dmitry Kulikov off for hooking Zuccarello, Nash took Callahan's cross-ice pass and snapped a shot past Clemmensen for his team-leading 18th goal of the season.
"I'm trying to help any way I can to win games. It's important to get a good start for us. We really want to get those first goals and tonight we did," Nash said. "Every game means so much. We need to pour it all in every game now. We're desperate for points."
The Panthers didn't test Lundqvist through much of the opening period, but they appeared to gain new life when Jonathan Huberdeau halved the Rangers lead with an outstanding effort. After taking a drop pass at the blue line from Shawn Matthias, Florida's star rookie made a nice move to beat Zuccarello before snapping a shot from the right circle past Lundqvist for his 14th goal of the season. Clemmensen made a big pad save on John Moore late in the period and another Florida rookie, Quinton Howden, almost tied the game on a partial breakaway moments later.
As they slowly started to gain momentum, the Panthers finally saw contributions from their penalty kill early in the second period, holding the Rangers shotless through two early two-minute minors to Greg Rallo and Kulikov.
Florida's best scoring chance of the period came with just over six minutes remaining, when Lundqvist kicked out his right leg to deny Alex Petrovic, who was making his NHL debut Thursday night. But any Florida momentum was halted with 3:26 remaining in the middle frame when Zuccarello restored the Rangers' two-goal lead.
After some strong work along the boards, Ryane Clowe's pass bounced off the side of the net directly to Zuccarello in front of the net, where he made no mistake and beat Clemmensen to the top corner with a backhander. Clowe, who was acquired near the deadline from the San Jose Sharks, was one of five players not on last season's playoff roster to earn a point.
Despite the big win, that fact meant very little to New York coach John Tortorella.
"I don't give a crap who contributes. I don't give a crap whether they are new, old, veteran, rookie," Tortorella said. "As long as we get contributions from everybody -- that's the only way we're going to find a way."
After failing to score in his first eight games with New York this season, Zuccarello scored his second of the night and third in two games with 4:49 remaining in the third when Richards' centering pass went off his skate and into the net. Brassard effectively put the game away with his second of the game 84 seconds later, and Richards added another goal on a wraparound with 1:24 remaining.
It was a far cry from the Rangers' previous game Tuesday night in Philadelphia, in which they fell behind early and lost 4-2 despite outshooting the Flyers 40-22. The main difference Thursday night was the power play, which went 0-for-5 against Philadelphia.
"You want to get your power play going. I think it's the reason why we lose in Philly. To score a couple of quick power-play goals was important for us," Tortorella said. "The penalty kill in the last seven, eight games has given us a lift and allowed us to stay in the game when the power play is not working that well."
The win gave the Rangers control of their own destiny entering the final five games of the regular season. That stretch starts with a pivotal Friday night road matchup against the Buffalo Sabres, whom New York can eliminate from playoff contention with a regulation win. Tortorella is eager to see how his squad responds to the challenge.
"Enjoy it. Don't think it's going to kill you," he said. "Test yourself and see if you can handle it."
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