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Six-day break arrives at perfect time

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Rangers rookie Mats Zuccarello had a remarkable evening for the Blueshirts, assisting on all three of the team's goals against the Panthers on Tuesday.

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By Jim Cerny,

When the final buzzer sounded at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night -- bringing an end not only to the Rangers’ 4-3 loss to the Florida Panthers, but to a brutally exhausting five-games-in-seven-nights stretch played with as many as eight regulars out of the lineup due to injury -- the team and its coach were left with many mixed emotions heading into the NHL All-Star break.

But if there was one overriding emotion shared amongst the Rangers it was pride. Pride in not succumbing to a dizzying array of injuries that could have crippled their season. Pride in having established a fierce work-ethic and team identity that is becoming the envy of other teams in the league. And pride that no matter the circumstance, each Ranger can trust the man standing next to him to not take shortcuts or to give in.

“I am certainly proud to be a part of this team,” said Brian Boyle, who scored his team-high 18th goal of the season early in the third period to forge a 3-3 tie at the time. “This is a team that people are talking about for all the right reasons. It’s a hard-nosed club that no matter the situation we’re going to keep coming after you. That’s a team you want to be a part of. It’s something special.”

After winning three of their first four games in this final stretch before the All-Star break --including back-to-back shootout victories in which they rallied from deficits in the third period their previous two games -- the Rangers were implored by their head coach John Tortorella “not to exhale” on Tuesday just because the much-needed break was in sight.

And most certainly the Rangers did not let up on Tuesday, playing a relentless -- often dominating -- game that was decided by a fluky goal or two that did not go their way.

“You get greedy, you want to squeeze a point out of this one after we come back there in the third,” said Tortorella. “But what I liked the most is that we didn’t give in. In my mind what I wanted most coming in was not to give (in), and we didn’t give (in). I hope that keeps resonating within our group because that type of thinking will take us where we want to be.”

Rookie forward Derek Stepan, who scored the first of the three Rangers goals, parks himself in front of Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun on Tuesday night. Vokoun was the difference, finishing with 32 saves.
For the third time in as many games over the past four days, the Rangers entered the third period trailing on the scoreboard -- this time by a 3-1 score. For the first time in these three games, the Rangers did not record points by rallying to either tie or win the game.

The Rangers did rally to initially pull even before the final period was even four minutes old on goals by heart-and-soul Blueshirts Brandon Prust and Boyle. However the Panthers scored the eventual game-winner -- on their only shot of the period -- when Mike Weaver’s shot deflected off Artem Anisimov and past Henrik Lundqvist at 11:41 of the third.

“We gave everything we could, and things like that (fluky goal) happen in hockey,” said Boyle. “It was their only shot in the period, so it leaves a real bad taste in our mouths. We will have to think about it for the next four to six days or whatever.”

Prust had scored his seventh goal just 74 seconds into the final stanza by deflecting Michael Sauer’s slap shot past Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun. Boyle tied the game by shoving in the rebound of Marian Gaborik’s power-play shot at 3:05.

Although they would outshoot Florida by an 11-1 margin in the third, the Rangers could not score the go-ahead goal.

“Obviously we are disappointed about tonight,” said All-Star defenseman Marc Staal. “We never talk about our injuries or use that as an excuse, but it’s a good time for the break. We are ready for the break and we look forward to getting healthy.”

Despite dominating the first period, the Rangers exited the ice after 20 minutes of play trailing 1-0, and their deficit swelled to 3-1 after a much more evenly contested second period.

The Rangers outshot the Panthers 12-4 in the opening period, spending long stretches of play pinning the visitors back in their own end of the ice. Yet the Blueshirts could not put the puck behind a sharp Vokoun, while also misfiring on a few other prime scoring chances. And that came back to haunt the home team when Florida scored off the rush at 12:35 to grab a 1-0 lead.

Former Rangers winger Christopher Higgins scooted into the offensive zone on left wing and hit Rotislav Olesz in perfect stride with a pass that resulted in a goal when Olesz one-timed the puck into the top of the cage behind Lundqvist.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist watches the play as former Blueshirt Christopher Higgins looks to create some traffic in front of the net. Lundqvist was the victim of an unfortunate game-winning goal that went off the back of teammate Artem Anisimov.
The Rangers were able to pull even 2:17 into the second period on Derek Stepan’s 14th goal of the season. After Wojtek Wolski powered his way to the net from right wing and fired a shot up high on Vokoun, Stepan swooped in and chipped the puck just past the outstretched glove of Vokoun and into the net, tying the game 1-1.

But things unraveled quickly thereafter for the Rangers, as they allowed two goals in a span of 1:08 to face a two-goal deficit.

Florida defenseman Keaton Ellerby scored his first NHL goal just 46 seconds after Stepan had tied the game. Ellerby wristed a shot through an Olesz screen in front to put Florida back in the league, though the goal had a controversial element to it.

Ellerby accepted a pass from Dmitri Kulikov at the right point, and it appeared that the puck crossed back over the line into the neutral zone, which, if so, would have put the play offsides. Neither linesmen ruled the play offsides, however, and the Panthers had a 2-1 lead.

“That second goal was a real kick in the teeth,” said Tortorella.

The Panthers upped that advantage to 3-1 at 4:11 of the second when Mike Santorelli slipped in behind the Rangers defense to pot the rebound of a Bryan Allen shot for his 13th goal.

In stunning fashion the Rangers had allowed two goals slightly more than a minute apart, and been burned for three goals in total on 10 shots in total.

“We played hard and kept fighting back,” said Tortorella. “I really thought that we would get at least a point tonight, even when we were down by two. I liked a lot of things we did, and there is a lot to like about this club.”

The Rangers, who are hoping to get at least two of their wounded warriors -- Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi -- back in the lineup when they next play Tuesday Feb. 1 at MSG against the Penguins, will have a full week to rest and heal over the break. It is a break that Prust referred to as one the Rangers “need more than any other team in the league.”

It is also one that is extremely well-earned. The Rangers hit the All-Star break with 29 victories and 61 points, and they currently sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“A lot of guys have played a lot of hockey, and obviously we’ve been down with a lot of injuries as a whole, so it’s going to be nice for the guys to have a break,” said team captain Chris Drury.
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