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Rangers top Cats 3-2 on Gaborik's OT winner

by Dave Lozo
NEW YORK -- A seven-minute lull during the first period appeared to be a sign that the Rangers were suffering from a Winter Classic hangover.

The final 53 minutes of regulation and 3:29 of overtime proved otherwise.

Marian Gaborik blistered home a slap shot with 1:31 left in the extra session that gave the Rangers a 3-2 victory -- their eighth in nine games -- to defeat the Southeast-leading Florida Panthers at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

Rangers coach John Tortorella said before the game he was wary of what his team's energy level would be like following the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Monday, and he had a right to be during parts of the first period. But the team had jump in its step throughout against a formidable opponent, one which forced the game to overtime thanks largely to goaltender Scott Clemmensen, who made 38 saves for the Panthers.

In a season that has featured a two-week trip to Europe, an extended stay away from Madison Square Garden while it was under renovations, the intrusion of HBO's "24/7" cameras and the hype of the Winter Classic, Thursday's game had the potential for a letdown. Instead, the Rangers moved back into first place in the League standings with a road showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins looming on Friday night.

"This is the grind," Tortorella said. "These are the dog days of the year. The holidays are over. For us, the cameras are gone. The Winter Classic is done. Now you find out about your team. That's why I say I really don't care what people say (about the Rangers being the best team in the League). I don't know what our team is. We have to go through the day-to-day situations as far as being ready and find out what we are when we go through the guts of the season, and that's the next couple months."

Gaborik's winner was the result of a great rush through the middle of the ice by Derek Stepan, who pushed the defense back as he crossed the blue line. Gaborik was the beneficiary of it all, corralling a drop pass and firing a rare slap shot that beat Clemmensen to the stick side.

It was his 23rd goal of the season and fifth game-winner. If he continues at this rate, he has a chance at his first 50-goal season.

"I don't score a lot of goals shooting slap shots," Gaborik said. "I had a couple chances before and I didn't shoot. I hesitated. This time I just wired it. I feel good. I just try to move my legs."

The Rangers played a much tighter game defensively Thursday than they did in a 4-1 victory against the Panthers five days ago. Henrik Lundqvist made 27 saves against the buzzing Panthers, but backup Martin Biron wasn't anywhere near as busy in the final meeting of the regular season between the teams. He made 19 saves to improve to 8-2-0 in 10 starts.

"There was a lot of energy generated from all of that," said Biron about the "24/7" cameras that followed the Rangers everywhere for a month. "It was weird not having cameras and microphones in the locker room before the game. It was left to us to generate the energy. January is always that kind of month (a grind) for everybody. You have to get yourself going. Everyone talks about the points in October, but I think the points in January are the most important because they set you up for the final drive."

The Panthers opened the scoring 4:16 of the first period when Marcel Goc and Mikael Samuelsson, both back in the lineup after missing time with injuries, worked a beautiful 2-on-1 rush that ended with Samuelsson feeding Goc for this third goal of the season. Goc's shot from the left side banged off the crossbar and beat Biron to the catching-glove side.

Defenseman Anton Stralman responded with his first goal as a Ranger with 2:16 left in the period. He let go on a long shot from near the right boards that deflected off Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski and through the pads of Clemmensen to tie the score.

"It's nice to win. That's what matters," Stralman said. "But it's always nice to be on the scoresheet."

What did he think of his goal?

"It was all luck," he said.

A defensive battle took place during a scoreless second period that saw the Rangers outshoot the Panthers 8-5. But a pair of quick goals highlighted a more up-tempo third period by both teams.

Ryan Callahan scored his 14th goal of the season on the power play when a shot by Brad Richards hit defenseman Mike Weaver, then Callahan's right knee before slipping between Clemmensen's pads to make it 2-1 Rangers at 4:24.

Before that goal could be announced in the arena, Mike Santorelli tied it for the Panthers with a quick wrist shot that beat Biron's glove from the right wing just 36 seconds later.

Only some great saves by Clemmensen prevented the Rangers from earning two points in regulation.

"He had a solid game for us," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "He made the saves when he needed to. He had some quality saves in there. We put him under siege against an offensively talented team."

His best save came during the first period against the Rangers' Mike Rupp, who had a chance to backhand a shot into a mostly open net, but a sprawling Clemmensen made the save with his arm.

It was the second solid game in a row for the Rangers' fourth line of Rupp, John Mitchell and Brandon Prust. They combined for two goals during the Winter Classic -- both by Rupp -- and had three shots Thursday. That may not seem like much, but they were carrying the play in the early going before the Rangers started to take over.

"I thought our fourth line was good," Tortorella said. "I thought in the first period they were our best line. I still have to figure out how to get that line more time. I also have to be careful. I don’t want to force-feed them and take away minutes from our other lines. They did some good things tonight."

The Rangers didn't exhale Thursday. With a stiff test against another tough Eastern Conference team -- and Atlantic Division rival -- less than 24 hours away, they'll have to find the energy that eludes teams at times during this part of the season once again.

"You always want to have a good record against teams in the East and against teams in your division, and we've done that so far," Callahan said. The Rangers are 20-6-2 vs. the East and 8-1 within their division. "I think that's a big thing for us moving forward."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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