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Rangers, Lundqvist prevail against Panthers, Thomas

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- It's been a struggle so far this season for Henrik Lundqvist, but 2013 ended on a high note for the New York Rangers goalie.

Lundqvist made 21 saves in regulation and overtime before stopping three Florida Panthers in the shootout when the Rangers won 2-1 Tuesday at BB&T Center.

Brad Richards scored the only goal in the shootout, allowing Lundqvist to outduel veteran Tim Thomas.

"It's a good feeling to end the year," Lundqvist said. "It's been up-and-down, no question. We've talked about it so many times now, but we continue building both as a group and also for myself here. Let's enjoy the new year tonight and then get back to work in a couple of days."

Lundqvist, who had a 3.68 goals-against-average in his previous eight starts, stopped rookie Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in the shootout before Richards beat Thomas in the third round with a quick shot off the left post.

Lundqvist clinched the victory with a save against Brad Boyes, who leads all NHL players with 36 career shootout goals and was 5-for-6 this season.

"[Henrik] was big for us tonight," said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, who sent the game to overtime with a goal with 2:10 left in the third period. "He made the big saves when he had to. When we needed him he was there, and that's why we've got him back there. He's a pretty big clutch player for us."

Lundqvist came in with a 5-2-1 record, a 1.23 goals-against average and a .959 save percentage in his prior eight starts at BB&T Center.

The Rangers have won four of five and are 2-1-0 on a five-game road trip that will wrap up with back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday and Saturday.

Thomas stopped 30 shots in his 400th NHL appearance after missing the previous eight games because of a groin injury, the third time this season he missed time because of groin problems.

He was activated off injured reserve last week, but the Panthers went with backup Scott Clemmensen in weekend games against the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens to give Thomas more time to get ready.

Before his latest injury, Thomas won his last three starts while allowing five goals. He stopped Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan in the shootout.

"I felt really good for a first game back," Thomas said. "It was one of those nights where if I could see it I could save it. I thought we were going to hang on until the end there, but that's hockey. We're picking up some momentum and doing some good things. We're a much better hockey team than we were in October. If we keep making strides, that's the direction you want to head in."

Thomas was trying for his first shutout for the Panthers, but Girardi beat him with a wrist shot from the top of the left circle. His goal helped atone for a mistake that led to the Florida goal in the second period.

"It felt pretty good," Girardi said. "It was kind of disappointing that one bad play could ruin a game for the team and yourself, so I was just glad I could put one in there and kind of redeem myself a little bit."

Girardi's goal came after Florida forward Tomas Kopecky lost his stick in front of the Panthers net and skated to the bench to get a new one, even though the puck was in the defensive zone.

"There are different theories to that," Panthers coach Peter Horachek said. "It's a little bit surprising that he would go there. A lot of teams would say, 'Go get your stick and hold the ice,' but I don't think that was a great time when the puck was behind the net, because if you leave that area obviously there's a big area open."

Boyes scored for the Panthers, who are 1-2-1 on a five-game homestand that ends against the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Tuesday was the final game between the Rangers and Panthers this season. The Rangers won the first two, 4-3 at New York on Nov. 10 and 5-2 at BB&T Center on Nov. 27. The Rangers have won six of the past seven meetings here.

New York had two of its defensemen back in the lineup: Marc Staal returned after missing 10 games because of a concussion, and Anton Stralman was back after missing the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday with a wrist injury.

Boyes broke a scoreless tie at 10:42 of the second period after Barkov intercepted Girardi's pass behind the Rangers net. Barkov fed Boyes in front and he deked to his backhand before sliding the puck between Lundqvist's legs.

The goal was Boyes' team-leading 10th of the season but his second in his past 18 games.

"It was a hard-fought game from both teams," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "There wasn't tons of room out there. After a pretty stingy first period as far as scoring chances on both sides, our power play got some great looks in the second. We had some Grade A scoring opportunities. The only thing we didn't do was put it past their goaltender, who obviously was on top of his game tonight. We made one mistake in the second, they made us pay for it. But we stuck with the process and brought it down to the wire and we were able to tie it and win it in OT."

The Panthers had a chance to pad their one-goal lead with a four-minute power play midway through the third period after Nick Bjugstad was high-sticked by Richards but could manage one shot. Bjugstad left the ice with a trainer but later returned.

"The four-minute [penalty kill] in the third, that's a big moment in the game," Lundqvist said. "It let us continue to chase for the first goal there. It really helped us win this one."

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