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Stepan's pair help Rangers bulldoze Panthers, 6-1

by Dave Lozo /
NEW YORK -- The grueling, sometimes vomit-inducing training camps run by John Tortorella aren't designed to ease players back into hockey after a summer-long vacation. They are structured in a way where conditioning is the coach's top priority, and that appears to be paying off for the New York Rangers.

Derek Stepan scored twice as the Rangers had plenty of life in their legs during a 6-1 drubbing of the Florida Panthers on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. Both teams were playing their third game in four nights, with the Rangers playing the second half of a back-to-back after winning in Buffalo on Saturday night.

Only the Rangers didn't look like a weary team. They were the fresh from the outset, and Tortorella believes that's a point of pride for his team, which is 24-8-3 in the second half of back-to-back games since the 2009-10 season.

"We have a hard camp. It's condition-oriented. It's a challenge for them," Tortorella said. "With the way we always talk about it, it's this is going to pay off. You can hear me say it between periods in these type of situations. I think (training camp) has something to do with it. I'm not sure it's all that for our record in back-to-backs, but it's nice to have that in the back of your mind, that you know what? Our work is going to pay off now."

The Rangers carried the play throughout the contest, but especially so during their four-goal second period that blew the game open. They outshot the Panthers 13-7 during the period and were quicker to loose pucks and rebounds. It resulted in two goals from StepanSteve Eminger and Marian Gaborik that were sandwiched between Stepan's pair.

Stepan's first goal was a sensational individual effort. With the Rangers shorthanded, he drove hard down the right wing and undressed Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson. Stepan cut inside and snapped a quick shot high to the glove side of Jose Theodore that pierced the top corner of the net to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead.

The goal came one second after the Panthers' power play ended, but it did nothing to take away from the beauty of the play.

"I just picked up the puck and I knew we were shorthanded, so if I did get pinched off I could always just dump it down," Stepan said. "I found a little ice to play on, and at that point, I had a lot of speed. It's hard for the defenseman to gap off when it comes in the corner, so I figured I'd make a move and try to get around him."

"He's playing with a lot of confidence," said Gaborik, whose goal was set up by Stepan's effort to absorb a hit in the corner and gather the puck. "He kills penalties and plays on the power play and has patience with the puck and hopefully he can keep it up."

Stepan's second of the game made it 6-1 with 2:12 left in the second period. It would be the last goal Theodore would allow, as Panthers coach Kevin Dineen pulled him in favor of Scott Clemmensen to start the third period.

Dineen didn't attribute the loss to his team being tired, instead saying it had more to do with a lack of cohesion among his players.

"Even in the first period, our special teams weren't very good," said Dineen, whose team went 0-for-7 on the power play and allowed two goals during three shorthanded situations. "Any time you get a tail-kicking like that, you always say things like, 'the will to compete.' That's what you always kind of hear from coaches. Certainly their want was higher than ours. When we play well, we certainly travel as a unit. We seemed really spread out. We were individualistic tonight versus playing as a group."

The Rangers scored both of their power plays goals during the second half of the opening period to jump to a 2-0 lead.

Brad Richards scored his 11th goal of the season, keeping him on a pace for the first 30-goal campaign of his career. It started with a splendid play by Ryan Callahan to hold the puck in the zone at the blue line. He fed the puck to Richards, who faked a slap shot before snapping it over the glove of Theodore to make it 1-0 at 11:40.

Artem Anisimov, who drew the ire of the Tampa Bay Lightning after his goal celebration Thursday, was a bit more subdued after making it 2-0 with 2:33 left in the period. Anisimov, much like he did Thursday, stashed the puck into a wide-open net, this time after Erik Christensen hit the post. Defenseman Anton Stralman, who is playing because Michael Sauer is out with a concussion, picked up his first point as a Ranger with the secondary assist.

Gudbranson responded with his first NHL goal 40 seconds later, but it was all the offense the Panthers could muster against a Rangers team that had 11 players notch a point.

"You create matchup problems and it takes a lot of pressure off each other," Richards said of the balanced attack. "We've got faith in each other as lines and each line goes out and tries to help. It's healthy competition and everyone is going to battle to get out there and get ice time."

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist hardly broke a sweat in making 20 saves for the Rangers, who moved to within one point of the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers with a game in hand.

Eminger and Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers' second defense pairing with Sauer out, were each plus-4.

After a 3-3-3 start, the Rangers are 14-3-1 in their last 18 games. Only the NHL-leading Wild boast a better points percentage, something the Rangers have earned this season with consistency. That has been a problem in the past, but the well-conditioned Rangers are looking like they have the staying power necessary to be contenders this season.

"I think we raised the bar this year," Lundqvist said. "We're not satisfied playing OK and getting a point here and there. So many players in the room now are challenging each other to be better and we have four pretty good lines out there.  It's a great feeling and I'm happy to see the way we're playing and the way we push ourselves through the ups and downs."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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