By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Florida’s Tim Thomas and Brad Boyes put themselves in position to be the stars for the Panthers in their New Year’s clash, but the New York Rangers put a damper on the festivities to close out 2013.
Before 16,083 fans at the BB&T Center, New York scored late to tie it and won the shootout 1-0 to earn a 2-1 win over the Panthers in what could only be described as a disappointing loss to the home team.
“It was a hard-fought 65-minute game and they won the shootout. You just have to move on from that. Timmy played pretty well,” interim head coach Peter Horachek said.
Thomas, making his 400th career start, did play well in his return from an eight-game absence due to a groin injury. He made 30 saves on the Rangers, including four in overtime, and put the Panthers (15-20-6) in position to hold a two-game winning streak heading in to 2014.
“I felt really good for a first game back,” said Thomas. “It was one of those nights where if I could see it I could save it. I thought we were going to hang on until the end there, but that’s hockey.
“We’re picking up some momentum and doing some good things. We’re a much better hockey team than we were in October. If we keep making strides, that’s the direction you want to head in.”
However, Dan Girardi blasted a shot from inside the left circle after Tomas Kopecky left the ice after simply dropping his stick while trying to get the puck. Girardi’s third goal on the pass from Derek Stepan with just 2:10 left in regulation sent the game to overtime and left Florida a bit deflated.
“There are different theories to that. It’s a little bit surprising that he would go there. A lot of teams would say go get your stick and hold the ice, but I don’t think that was a great time when the puck was behind the net because if you leave that area obviously there’s a big area open,” said Horachek.
The turning point for Florida occurred when Brad Richards went off for four minutes after high-sticking Nick Bjugstad and drawing blood at 7:47 of the third period. Florida, though, could only muster one shot and generated very little time in front of Lundqvist, rarely coming away with much zone time, which bothered Horachek.
“We don’t relate it to how many shots we had. I’m relating it to puck possession, and they block a lot of shots. I’d say it’s more about how much possession time we had which would be the disappointing part,” Horachek said.
“Whether it’s on the power play or the other 61 minutes of the game…we want to win on the power play, on the 5-on-5. We just want to win. I’m not going to say ‘You’re supposed to win it on the power play.’ You’re supposed to win.”
New York (20-19-2) netted the only goal of the shootout when Richards beat Thomas high on the stick side in the third round after the goaltender had denied Mats Zuccarello and Stepan. Florida failed to score in the shootout as Lundqvist denied Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Boyes.
The productive line of Boyes, Barkov and Sean Bergenheim – the B Line – had an impressive shift midway in the second period that gave Florida a 1-0 lead. Bergenheim came up short of the red line but sent the puck along the boards and past the Florida bench. Girardi was the first to the puck, but the defenseman flipped it right to Barkov behind the visitor’s net. Barkov fed Boyes, who made a move that opened up Lundqvist and beat him 5-hole at 9:18 for his 10th goal.
New York coach Alain Vigneault had nothing but praise for the Panthers following the game.
“That team is playing real well. They’re playing fast. They’ve got a real strong transition game. I had watched their game against Montreal and we had talked about it prior to the game tonight (that) we had to take away some of that transition,” the first-year Rangers coach said.
“I thought we did a pretty good job of doing that. We stuck with our process, stuck with our game and we were finally able to put one past him with a little bit more than two minutes left.”
NOTES: Florida tied a franchise record for most points in December with 17; it’s the fourth time the Panthers have done turned the feat…Boyes scored for just the second time in his last 18 games…Barkov holds a four-game point streak, the longest of his career…D Dylan Olsen recorded seven hits and five blocked shots…Florida hosts Nashville Saturday night to close out the five-game homestand then embarks for three roads tests – Montreal (1-6, Mon.), Buffalo (1-9) and New Jersey (1-11)…Thomas recorded his 11,000th NHL save against Winnipeg on Dec. 5. He entered the game 14th among NHL goalies with 11,024 saves…Entering the game, Florida had posted their 15 wins against teams with a combined record of 271-165-63.