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Panthers hold off Rangers 4-3

by Dave Lozo

NEW YORK -- Mike Weaver flashed a grin that was as wide as the off-target shot he took the resulted in the game-winning goal for the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.

The smile had more than enough sheepishness to make up for what it lacked in teeth. Weaver's seventh goal in 388 career games and second of the season was headed about 10 feet wide before hit the back of New York Rangers center Artem Anisimov, popped into the air and fell behind a confused Henrik Lundqvist to give the Panthers a 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden.

The lucky break with 8:19 left in the third period had the 32-year-old defenseman in the rare position of being the center of attention after a game.

"Looking at the replay, it was going wide," Weaver said with a laugh. "Hey, these things are…if you're not shooting, you're not getting an opportunity to score. Eyes closed, head down. A lot of luck."

Weaver was surprised to learn his shot -- if you can call it that -- was the only one of the period for the Panthers.

"Oh, really? And that wasn't even on net," Weaver said, earning a few laughs from some nearby teammates. "That's great. It's good, though. I'm not a point-getter. Get a shot on net. It worked out great."

The win moved the 11th-place Panthers (22-21-5) within six points of the eighth-place Atlanta Thrashers, who have played three more games. The Panthers will head to Boston to face the Bruins on Wednesday in their final game before the All-Star break.

Goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who missed Sunday's game against the New Jersey Devils with an upper-body injury, returned to the lineup and made 32 saves. The Rangers erased a 3-1 deficit with a pair of rapid-fire goals by Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle early in the third period, but Vokoun held the fort during the final 17 minutes.

"Our goalie won us a game," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "There's been a few nights this year when we've outplayed the opponent and left with no points. We got outplayed for big stretches of the game, probably didn't deserve to be in the spot we're in. We've had at least a handful of nights where we're on the other end of that and don't win, so we'll take it. Our goalie was our best player and that was enough to win."

Rostislav Olesz opened the scoring for the Panthers with a goal that also hit Anisimov before getting past Lundqvist. He teed up a one-time pass from ex-Ranger Chris Higgins and ripped a shot that tipped off Anisimov's stick and eluded the catching glove of Lundqvist at 12:35 of the first period.

Derek Stepan's 14th goal of the season at 2:17 of the second period tied the score at 1-1, but Keaton Ellerby's first NHL goal 46 seconds later put the Panthers back on top. Mike Santorelli made it 3-1 just 1:08 later when he got behind defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Steve Eminger and buried a rebound past Lundqvist.

Lundqvist allowed four goals on 17 shots, but it wasn't as if he had a bad night. The Rangers carried the play throughout -- Mats Zuccarello assisted on all three goals -- but the bounces went the Panthers' way at critical times.

"It wasn't our best game, that's for sure," Vokoun said. "Obviously we were lucky at the end, but we'll take it."

"They had all the luck they could have, if you look at their goals, the deflections they had," Lundqvist said.

The Rangers (29-20-3) head into a six-day layoff in sixth place in the East. They'll need that time to get some of their injured players healthy. Forward Ryan Callahan (hand) and defenseman Dan Girardi (abdomen) could be back right after the break.

That still leaves them without forwards Brandon Dubinsky (leg), Erik Christensen (knee), Vinny Prospal (knee), Derek Boogaard (shoulder) and Ruslan Fedotenko (shoulder), who are still recovering from their injuries. Forward Alex Frolov (knee) is out for the season.

"It's going to be a good feeling to see a lot of guys back when we start again," said Lundqvist, who will head to Raleigh for the All-Star Game. "There are some key guys out. It's always a different feeling when you're missing that many guys, but at the same time we have some guys coming up who have been doing a great job for us."

Tuesday's game was the Rangers' fifth in seven days. They went a very respectable 3-2-0 over that span, which began with the loss of Dubinsky, but Boyle wasn't ready to celebrate the accomplishment.

"We want to win at least eight points in five games," Boyle said. "The road wins (Atlanta and Washington) were huge and we really wanted to win tonight, so there's a bad taste in my mouth. The mental mistakes, you don't want to deal with but sometimes they happen. Physically, I think everybody gave everything they had."

The Panthers will punch the clock less than 24 hours after this game in search of two more points that could pull them closer to a playoff spot.

"Every so often I glance at the standings. You kind of know what's going on," Weaver said. "But at the same time, it's one game at a time. You can't win the Stanley Cup off the bat. You have to take it in stride. We just have to break it down a shift at a time. You can't look two games ahead."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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