SUNRISE, Fla. -- The standings will reflect that the Rangers came away from Florida emptyhanded on Saturday night. But it was hard for the Rangers themselves to feel like they took nothing at all out of a game that needed to be, and was, so markedly better than the one before.
"I don't think we have anything to really be upset about," Brendan Lemieux said in the aftermath of a 4-3, see-saw loss to the Florida Panthers. "Look, obviously you want to win every night. But the only thing in this League you can really control is your effort, and what kind of game you play, and I thought we played a good game tonight."
David Quinn was just as straightforward. "A complete 180," the Head Coach called it, citing the strides from their game in Tampa two nights before. "I thought we competed, I thought we skated, I thought we made some plays, and played hockey."
They played yet another back-and-forth game against the Florida Panthers, though after an early flurry this game had less of the feel of the scoring contest these two teams had put on six days earlier at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were sound for the much of the 60 minutes, but special teams made the difference early and Sergei Bobrovsky locked it down late, and the Rangers dropped the back end of their two-game swing in the Sunshine State.
This is the first time the Rangers have lost back-to-back games in nearly a month, but the two Florida games in question were night and day, with the Rangers outscoring and outchancing the Panthers at 5-on-5 throughout the night. A great deal of that is owed to the monster evening turned in by Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, linemates who each went in the books with an identical 27:57 on ice, career highs for both and the most for any Ranger forward in a 60-minute game in nearly two decades, since Pavel Bure topped 28 minutes one night in March of 2002.
And Panarin and Strome made it count, too, each with a goal and an assist apiece and combining for one-third of the Rangers' 33 shots. For Panarin, it was his 11th consecutive game with points, extending his career high.
"He was really good tonight," Quinn, who coached his 100th NHL game, said of Panarin. "I thought every time he had the puck something good was about to happen. I thought that line was good."
That line -- which Quinn kept throwing over the boards knowing that they Rangers have three off-days before their next game -- included a lot of Jesper Fast, who made a magnificent pass across the zone and through four bodies to set up Strome's first-period tally. Tony DeAngelo also scored for the Blueshirts off a Panarin dish -- Bobrovsky had robbed them the first time they tried the play, so they tried it again -- while Greg McKegg and a couple of rookie blueliners, Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren, picked up helpers in support of Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 26 shots in his 868th career game, tying Grant Fuhr for 10th all-time among goaltenders.
Florida, though, got a pair of goals from Evgenii Dadonov -- both with setups from Jonathan Huberdeau, who finished with three assists on the night -- and 30 saves from Bobrovsky, including stops on all 12 shots he saw in the third to seal the Panthers' third win in four games and make Joel Quenneville just the second Head Coach in NHL history to reach 900 wins.
Win No. 898 had come the first time these two teams had tangled in the space of a week -- last Sunday they played to a 5-5 tie through 65 minutes at the Garden, before the Panthers grabbed the extra point in a shootout. In all, over a six-day span, the teams combined for 17 goals; neither side ever held a two-goal lead, and there were eight different tie scores in the two games.
Quinn had called that wild Garden match on Sunday the "shootout at the O.K. Corral"; while this one bore a resemblance in the back-and-forth scoring, it was nowhere near the Wild West hockey of six days before.
"No, this was much better," Quinn said. "I think we only gave up about 15, 16 scoring chances -- you do that, you're going to win, you should win most nights. It was a different feel from our end of it; I thought we played much better tonight than we did the last time we played them."
"Our game was much cleaner," said Lemieux. "But our kill needs work."
The Rangers' penalty kill was a bugaboo through the whole State of Florida this week, particularly early in games. On Saturday, it was Dadonov and Mike Hoffman who each scored on Panther power plays before the game was seven minutes old, and the Panthers finished 2-for-4 in a one-goal game. It was Florida's ninth straight game with a power-play goal, during which time they are 11-for-31 (35.5%).
Hoffman's goal came just 2:05 in, when he and Keith Yandle (three assists) played a little catch up high before Hoffman one-timed a bullet from above the right dot. "The first one's just a heck of a play by them," Quinn said. "Sometimes your penalty kill, you question yourself, 'Why'd we give that one up?' And sometimes the answer is, 'They have five and you have four.'"
Fast set up Strome for a response just 34 seconds later, throwing a pass off the left wall and somehow finding a seam through multiple defenders, with Strome beating his opposite center Noel Acciari to the net to get on the other end of it. And after Dadonov scored at 6:50, it took Panarin 1:57 to answer back, with a skipping stone that got past Bobrovsky, Panarin's close pal and former teammate in Columbus.
It was the fourth time those two have gone head-to-head; Panarin has scored five times on his countryman.
"He is my good friend," Panarin said afterward. "But on the ice there are no friends."
Bobrovsky made the best of his 30 saves two minutes into the third, taking one away from DeAngelo with his catching glove off a Panarin feed -- but DeAngelo buried Take Two less than four minutes later to give the Rangers their only lead. Brett Connolly knotted the game again two minutes after that, and Dadonov's second goal, 2:16 before second intermission, held up as the winner.
The Rangers made their push during a scoreless third -- they went to a power play with 4:29 to play, then pulled Lundqvist with 2:29 left -- but couldn't solve Bobrovsky one more time. "I'd like to see us shooting more pucks -- I think we probably should've had 40 shots tonight," Lemieux said. "I think we make a few too many seam plays."
The Rangers' special teams is sure to be an area of focus in the coming days, with three of them in between Saturday's game in Sunrise and Wednesday's nationally televised Garden clash with the League-leading Washington Capitals.
"We've got to focus on the things we're doing well, and keep doing it," Quinn said. "And we've got to clean up our special teams. We clean up our special teams and we will win hockey games."