NEW YORK – Scoring against three-time Vezina Trophy nominee Henrik Lundqvist is far from easy, which is why Jordan Leopold's goal on Saturday night was so amazing.
Midway through the second period, the Florida Panthers' defenseman flipped a harmless-looking backhand shot from the blue line that floated through a slew of traffic in front of the net. The puck took a couple of strange hops near the crease before sliding through Lundqvist's legs to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead they wouldn't relinquish on the way to a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
"I was just throwing it down to get something going to down low and it ended up taking a couple crazy bounces and it found its way in the net," Leopold said. "It's right up there with one of those that you bounce it off the glass and the goalie comes out to play it and it goes in. It ended up going in, it counts, it's on the score sheet and it got us a big win."
The seeing-eye goal gave Florida (10-9-2) its fifth victory in six games and sent the reeling Rangers (11-10-1) to their fourth loss in five contests.
Tomas Vokoun made 32 saves for the Panthers while Nathan Horton and Steven Reinprecht also added goals. This was the Panthers' third road game in four nights while the Rangers had been off since Tuesday. Yet it was Florida that looked like the more energized team Saturday.
"Three games, three wins. We worked hard for those six points," Panthers right wing Radek Dvorak said. "We know we have a chance to win every hockey game. It gives you confidence. We know we've been playing good lately and we've bringing a lot of confidence to the game. That's why we have a lot of energy."
"We started off well … we started off just how we wanted to," Panthers right wing Nathan Horton said. "We didn't get the breaks or the goals that we wanted to, but the whole night I thought we played good. A couple minutes we let off, but I think for the most part we played good and rolled our lines."
New York held a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes thanks in large part to the play of its newly formed top line of Marian Gaborik, Vinny Prospal and Ales Kotalik. Rangers coach John Tortorella has been searching for secondary offense all season, but instead opted to put his top three scorers together against the Panthers.
The trio scored both of the team's goals, but after the game, Tortorella expressed his unhappiness with Kotalik's play and said the line would only have a one-game lifespan.
"I don't think he can play with the top two guys," Tortorella said. "I kept him there because I thought the other two lines were going well. Kotes is fighting it. I don't think there was enough puck battles won, he's having a problem getting his shot through. I don't think he can play there. So we've got to figure out something there."
Gaborik, Prospal and Kotalik have combined for more points (68) than the rest of the Rangers forwards who have played this season (12) combined (63). The unit was thrown together by Tortorella after Enver Lisin was largely ineffective in eight games on the top line, resulting in Kotalik taking his spot on the left wing.
Despite Tortorella’s disappointment in Kotalik's play, the unit didn't take long to strike first. With the puck pinballing near the Panthers' blue line, Prospal was all set to carry the puck into the zone. But Gaborik was still in the zone, scrambling to get back to the blue line so he wasn't offsides.
He escaped the zone a millisecond before Prospal carried the puck across and beat Vokoun with a wrister from a bad angle to make it 1-0 at 14:11.
Rangers pest Sean Avery had a golden chance to make it 2-0 about five minutes into the second period. A shot from the point found Avery's stick in front of the net, but Panthers defenseman Kamil Kreps made a nice play to clear the puck from the crease with Vokoun out of position.
Only a few minutes later, Reinprecht's 10th of the season beat Lundqvist low to the stick side to tie the score at 1. Leopold's fluky goal came less than three minutes later and put the Panthers ahead to stay.
"We had great legs, we had great energy," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "You can't explain that from the coaching perspective. We didn't get to bed till 2 in the morning, it was an emotional win in Detroit. To these guys' credit, they came out and they were flying."
Horton's sixth of the season gave the Panthers a two-goal cushion. Stephen Weiss got behind Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and got off a shot that Lundqvist stopped. But the rebound caromed right to Horton, who was trailing the play and banged home the rebound.
Gaborik cut the lead to 3-2 at 6:01 of the third period with his 16th goal of the season, which came off a nice feed in front from Michal Rozsival. The quick wrister beat Vokoun, who was otherwise brilliant over the final two periods. The Rangers' best chance to tie it came off an in-close chance from Avery, but Vokoun was up to the task.
"Critical saves at key times," DeBoer said of Vokoun. "That's the kind of goaltending we need. It's the timing of the saves, I thought he really buckled down and gave us critical saves at critical times down the stretch."