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Rangers continue pursuit of playoffs against Panthers

by Brian Hunter
RANGERS (35-32-10) at PANTHERS (31-34-12)

Last 10: New York 6-3-1; Florida 3-5-2

Season series:
Fourth and final meeting of the regular season. The teams traded road wins in November before the Rangers won 4-1 at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23. Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal have three goals apiece to lead the scoring.

Big story:
The Panthers' postseason drought is about to reach nine seasons and counting. On Saturday night, they will do their best to damage the Rangers' hopes of qualifying for their fifth consecutive playoff berth since the League returned from the work stoppage. The Blueshirts have closed to within two points of both the Flyers and Bruins, and still have five games remaining in the regular season.

Team Scope:

It looks like New York learned a lesson from Pittsburgh's game against Tampa Bay on Wednesday, when the Lightning shut out the defending Stanley Cup champions in their own building and hindered their chase for the Atlantic Division title. The Rangers came out hard Friday and blitzed the Lightning with a four-goal first period, taking full advantage of numerous mistakes by the home team and going on to a 5-0 victory that was huge in more ways than just the final score.

"It felt really good," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said of playing with a big lead -- an uncommon occurrence for the low-scoring Rangers. "It's a little scary to play these games when you get a big lead in the first. You never know -- you could slip if you're not careful. But we did well."

Scott Clemmensen was the forgotten man for a stretch of several months, as Tomas Vokoun shouldered the heavy workload in Florida. As Vokoun showed signs of wearing down under a constant barrage of shots, the Panthers turned back to Clemmensen and he's responded by keeping them in the race for as long as possible. He stopped all 36 shots he faced Thursday in Boston, making Keith Ballard's early goal stand up for a 1-0 victory. It was Clemmensen's fifth career shutout and first with the Panthers.

"I have a special place in my heart for Boston," said Clemmensen, who played his college hockey for Boston College. "It's nice to look up and see BC as Beanpot champs and conference champs."

Who's hot:
Lundqvist is 4-0-1 with a 1.76 goals-against average, .942 save percentage and two shutouts in his last five starts for the Rangers. Gaborik has four goals and four assists in the last seven games. Michael Del Zotto has two goals and five assists in the last six games.

Clemmensen is 3-0-1 in his last four starts for the Panthers, stopping 129 of 135 shots (.955 save percentage). Ballard has two goals in the last three games. Stephen Weiss has two goals and two assists in the last four games.

Injury report:
New York forwards Sean Avery (knee), Ryan Callahan (knee) and Brian Boyle (ankle/foot) were all out of the lineup Friday and are considered day-to-day. … Florida forwards Gregory Campbell (foot), Rostislav Olesz (hand) and Victor Oreskovich (lower body) are all day-to-day, while forwards David Booth (concussion) and Byron Bitz (elbow) will be out indefinitely.

Stat pack:
Seven of the nine meetings between these teams at the BankAtlantic Center have gone to the shootout since the NHL put it into place prior to the 2005-06 season to decide games tied after overtime. The Rangers have won four of those games and the Panthers three.

Puck drop:
"When you start winning, you start feeling more confident," Rangers coach John Tortorella said Friday. "We just have to stay within ourselves and just try to find a way to play simple games and get wins."

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