NEW YORK – It was ironic that Panther coach Peter DeBoer compared his team’s first two periods Thursday against the Rangers to Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope.
Like Ali in ‘The Rumble in The Jungle,’ this year’s Panthers can be knocked around a bit, too. But never out.
Despite not playing their best game through the first 40 minutes of Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the Rangers – and being outshot 38-18 through the opening 49 minutes – the Panthers walked out of Madison Square Garden with two points in their battle for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“We know we didn’t have our best game,” said forward Stephen Weiss
, who assisted on David Booth’s game-tying goal at 11:50 of the third. “But we knew we still had 20 minutes (after two periods). We kept pushing, stuck with it, and we were able to get two big points.
“I’d call it a gritty effort.”
Call it the style of this Panther team. Down 1-0 after two periods, the Panthers jumped on the Rangers for goals by Booth and Nathan Horton a minute apart in the third to run their record to 15-6-3 since Jan. 1 and 24-11-7 since Nov. 24.
Oh, by the way…the Panthers haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation since Dec. 29-31.
As they left for New Jersey late Thursday night to prepare for two more critical games against the Devils (Saturday) and the Capitals (Sunday), the Panthers are 1-1 on their current five-game road trip and 4-3 on a crucial, 10-game stretch where nine of the teams have winning records.
The Panthers are not only proving they’re capable of bouncing back from tough losses – they won Thursday after losing Tuesday in Boston 6-1, and rebounded from a 4-0 loss to Chicago last week with a 2-0 win over the Bruins – but they’re also doing it without key players in the lineup.
Remember last December, when they won three of four games in Canada without Booth, Horton and Richard Zednik? Thursday night they won without Tomas Vokoun (ear infection) and Cory Stillman (foot) out of the lineup.
“They’re a huge piece of our team,” Weiss said. “But we have other guys who can step up and contribute.”
Craig Anderson, replacing Vokoun for the second consecutive game, was by far the biggest reasons the Panthers were only down one goal after 40 minutes. He made several key saves, including highlight worthy ones on Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Nikolai Zherdev.
And Zednik made a huge assist on Horton’s game-winner, fighting off the check of Marc Staal down the wing.
“Our goalie gave us a big chance to win the game, and everyone knows how strong Z is on the puck,” said Radek Dvorak.
And maybe that’s the reason this team is different from other Panther teams of the past. Different players on different nights make a difference. And there’s no panic when they’re down.
“That’s a difference between last year and this year,” Dvorak added. “We’ve been in this situation (down going into the third period) a lot of this year and we know how to play in this situation. We keep pushing. We know it’s a matter of time.”
Added Weiss; “It doesn’t matter if we’re up or down. We keep chipping away.”
The Panthers, who are scheduled to practice this afternoon at the Prudential Center, realize they’ll have to put together a stronger game Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., when they play the Devils, who welcomed goalie Martin Brodeur back from a four-month layoff with a 4-0 victory Thursday evening.
“We have to be better in New Jersey,” Booth said. “That’s a game we have to win.”NOTES
Cory Stillman, who suffered a foot injury when hit with a puck during Thursday morning’s practice, is day-to-day…Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester played 29:58 Thursday evening and had three hits and three blocked shots…The Panthers had a tough night in the faceoff circle against the Rangers, winning only 18 of 55 draws…