SUNRISE – It might have been different in another time, another season.
Coming off two emotional victories earlier in the week and playing the second of back-to-back games Friday evening – not to mention their third game in four nights - it would have been easy for the Panthers to run out of gas or get frustrated against goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers.
But the Panthers “didn’t really ease off the pedal,” said defenseman Bryan McCabe, and the team’s dizzying climb up the Eastern Conference standings took another giant step.
Behind Tomas Vokoun’s 34 saves and Richard Zednik’s goal in sudden death, the Panthers beat the Rangers 2-1 in a shootout to win their third consecutive game, their fifth in their last six, and move within two points of fourth in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a lot of hockey, and we have another game Sunday,” said McCabe, referring to Sunday’s 5 p.m., game here against the Capitals. “But we showed a lot of character tonight. It was a nice effort from everybody.”
After Zednik solved Lundqvist on the Panthers’ fourth attempt in the shootout, Vokoun made a glove save on Nikolai Zherdev before pumping his fist in the air to the delight of Panther fans. It was the Panthers third shootout victory this season.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Vokoun, who has allowed only one goal in his last 125 minutes and has stopped 75 of 76 shots. “We worked extremely hard on both sides of the puck tonight. Playing back to back nights. This was one of our best games of the year.”
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After coming back from a three-goal deficit Tuesday in the third period to beat Toronto in overtime, and then winning Thursday at Carolina against the Hurricanes, the Panthers were aware of a possible letdown.
“We did mention it,” said Cory Stillman, who has a four-game point streak and 10 assists in his last nine games. “You have a big comeback game, then you score five goals, we have to respond in the right way. You can say the third period (in Carolina) we got confident and the game’s easy and we win 5-0. But I think we still did a lot of good things in Carolina and it carried over into tonight’s first period. We gave up some chances, but we were getting the puck deep and getting chances.”
In what was a physical, end-to-end game, the Panthers came out flying and only Lundqvist prevented the Panthers from an early lead with key saves on David Booth, Gregory Campbell and Michael Frolik. Lundqvist’s play was rewarded at 17:14 of the first period when a shot from Fredrik Sjostrom slowly slid out from under Vokoun and into the net for a 1-0 Ranger lead.
The Panthers tied the game at 2:37 of the second, however, when Michael Frolik took a pass from Cory Stillman in the high slot, spun from a defender, and fired the puck past Lundqvist.
Vokoun and Lunqvist then spent the third period matching each other in saves. Vokoun made two glove saves on Scott Gomez. Meanwhile, Lundqvist robbed Nathan Horton with a glove save and then stopped Booth all alone to the side of the net.
“Both goalies played great,” McCabe said.
“(Vokoun) was our best player,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer, “and (Lundqvist) was their best player.”
Before Zednik’s game winner, Lundqvist stopped Stillman and Stephen Weiss while Horton missed the net. Vokoun stopped Markus Nasland and Ryan Callahan while Nigel Dawes missed the net. He stopped Zherdev to secure the victory.
“There were a lot of good things,” DeBoer said. “I thought Tomas Vokoun was outstanding. I thought (Jay) Bouwmeester was fantastic tonight. But it was a 20-man effort.”
The Panthers, who have earned points in 28 of their last 36 games, play their fourth game in six days Sunday when they host the Capitals, who are first in the Southeast and lead the Panthers by nine points. The game will also be the first of four home games this coming week for the Panthers.
“We’re learning,” Stillman said. “We’re still learning how to win night in, night out, and tonight was a great step in that direction.”
Defenseman Nick Boynton racked up 17 minutes in penalties in the second period when he was flagged for a 10 minute misconduct, 5 minute fighting major and 2 minute instigator when he took on Paul Mara, who hit Booth along the boards. Boynton didn’t play the remainder of the evening…Gregory Campbell and Brandon Dubinsky also went at it in the first period…Campbell and Booth each had four hits…Scott Gomez won 12 of 15 faceoffs…Karlis Skrastins had three blocked shots…