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Division leaders square off as Rangers visit Panthers

by Eric Goodman /
RANGERS (22-9-4) at PANTHERS (19-11-7)


Last 10:
New York 7-3-0; Florida 4-3-3

Season series: The clubs have split the first two of a four-game series with each getting a win on its respective home ice. The 2010-11 season series was also even, with the Rangers and Panthers both getting a win each at home and on the road.

Big Story:
The Atlantic Division-leading Rangers take on the Southeast Division's first-place Panthers in what is New York's last game before heading into Philadelphia to play the Flyers outdoors at Citizens Bank Park for the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Monday, Jan. 2. Florida seeks to overcome a lopsided 6-1 defeat the last time it faced the Rangers on Dec. 11.

Team Scope:

Rangers: New York is coming off a tough 4-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday, which ended its five-game winning streak. While the Blueshirts averaged 3.6 goals a game over that span, Brandon Dubinsky's third goal of the season was the only offense they could muster against the Capitals. Backup goalie Martin Biron had his hands full Wednesday as the Rangers' defense struggled to find its groove.

"It kills us," coach John Tortorella said about the lackluster defensive effort. "That's what's frustrating. I thought we beat ourselves a little bit there."

Panthers: Florida tries to keep its strong play going at home as it is 7-1-2 in its last 10 games at BankAtlantic Center. If the Panthers can match the effort they put forth in a 5-3 win over Toronto on Tuesday, then they should definitely give the Rangers a run for their money.

The Cats were tied with Toronto early in the second period, but three goals in just over four minutes of game play gave them a 4-1 lead that they managed to protect despite a late-game surge by the Leafs. Kris Versteeg and Jason Garrison both tallied power-play goals to help Florida earn the victory.

"That's what we were really looking for," coach Kevin Dineen told reporters after the game. "We really were worried about the speed and the skill that (the Maple Leafs) have and sometimes the best defense is a good offense."

Who's Hot:
Rangers' goalie Henrik Lundqvist is 6-2-0 with a 1.24 goals-against average in his last eight starts against Florida. … Versteeg has 3 goals and 2 assists over his last five games for the Panthers.

Injury Report:
Defensemen Michael Sauer (concussion), Marc Staal (concussion) and Steve Eminger (shoulder) and forward Wojtek Wolski (sports hernia) remain out for New York, although Staal has been fully participating in practices. … For Florida, forwards Mikael Samuelsson (upper body), Stephen Weiss (upper body) and Marco Sturm (head) are all questionable.
Stat Pack:
The Rangers should be in good shape if they can grab a 1-0 lead, as they are second in the NHL with a .895 winning percentage when they get the first goal of the game.

Puck Drop: While the Panthers struggled to find success in recent seasons, they are now in a position to win their first ever division title in franchise history. The improved play is, in part, due to the additions of bona-fide offensive sparkplugs like Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, as well as the strong play of Brian Campbell on defense and Jose Theodore in net.

"(Fleischmann) scores big goals for us, that's what big-time players do," Campbell told reporters after Tuesday's win.

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