Tonight is another true test for the Florida Panthers, so far they have not been able to beat the elite teams in the East. The teams that currently all stand before them in the standings.
Two of the New York Rangers’ next three games are against the Florida Panthers, but it’s safe to say those aren’t the ones that will receive the most attention.
The Panthers try to take advantage of New York’s distractions surrounding the Winter Classic as the Rangers close their 2011 slate Friday night in Sunrise, Fla.
After this contest, these clubs will finish their season series next Thursday in Manhattan, but in between the Rangers (22-9-4) visit Philadelphia for Monday’s much-anticipated outdoor game against the Atlantic Division rival Flyers.
Both New York and Philadelphia are among the top teams in Eastern Conference – a distinction shared by surprising Southeast Division leader Florida.
The Panthers (19-11-7) dropped their final three games before Christmas, culminating in an ugly 8-0 loss at Boston, but they emerged from the break Tuesday with a 5-3 victory over Toronto. They improved to 7-1-2 in their last 10 home contests, including a 2-1 win over the Rangers on Nov. 23.
Tuesday’s offensive outburst was especially impressive considering Florida was lacking several forwards due to injuries, including Stephen Weiss, Mikael Samuelsson, Sean Bergenheim and Jack Skille.
The Rangers got plenty the last time these teams met Dec. 11 at Madison Square Garden, with Derek Stepan scoring twice and adding an assist to lead a 6-1 rout which Panthers coach Kevin Dineen called “a good, old-fashioned tail-kicking.”
Jose Theodore, who had been 14-3-1 with a tie in his previous 19 starts versus New York, allowed all six goals on 22 shots in two periods before being pulled.
Florida was 0 for 7 on the power play in that game while the Rangers went 2 for 3. Productivity with the man advantage has been key for the Panthers, who rank among the NHL leaders with 29 power-play goals.
Jason Garrison and Kris Versteeg each got one in a three-minute span during the second period Tuesday, with Campbell getting a pair of primary assists. Campbell had three assists against the Maple Leafs, giving him 30 points this season – three more than he had in all of 2010-11 in 65 games with Chicago.
Garrison tops all NHL defensemen with 11 goals, Versteeg’s 38 points lead the Panthers and each player scored – Garrison on the power play – in Florida’s home win over the Rangers last month. Tomas Fleischmann had two assists in that game, and he broke a 10-game goal drought with a key insurance tally Tuesday.
After totaling 18 goals during a five-game winning streak, the Rangers managed only Brandon Dubinsky’s third of the season in a 4-1 loss at Washington on Wednesday.
New York’s defense struggled after allowing two or fewer goals in eight of the previous nine games, falling victim to what coach John Tortorella called “some brain-dead plays at our blue line.
Henrik Lundqvist figures to be back in net after getting the night off in the nation’s capital. He’s started both games against the Panthers this season and is 6-2-0 with a 1.24 goals-against average in his last eight outings in the series.
New York Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist
Florida Panthers – Scott Clemmensen
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