Florida Panthers edge New York Rangers 3-0

After a season of struggling to maintain a lead NHLHS Florida Panthers correspondent Bill Whitehead discusses the Panthers big shutout win over the Blue Shirts.

Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent

SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers finally found a lead they were able to hold on to.

Tomas Vokoun stopped all 32 shots he faced and Florida scored a pair of goals in the third period in a 3-0 win over the New York Rangers in front of 16,752 at BankAtlantic Center on Sunday.

The Panthers (17-17-2) held leads against both Boston and Montreal earlier in the week, but lost after regulation. The Bruins beat Florida 3-2 in a shootout — the Panthers’ first loss this season in the extra session — and the Canadiens’ James Wisniewski had an overtime winner Friday in a 3-2 victory.

But with the Panthers leading 1-0 on a power-play goal by David Booth, winger Chris Higgins beat defenseman Michael Del Zotto to a loose puck at center ice that led to a 2-on-1 advantage. He then toe-dragged past the sliding Del Zotto and slipped a shot by backup goalie Martin Biron, who was making his first start since a 4-3 win over Phoenix on Dec. 16.

Higgins had a similar situation and made the same move Friday against Montreal in overtime but was unable to get off a shot, and Montreal immediately went back the other way for Wisniewski’s winner. This time, though, his sixth goal gave the Panthers a two-goal cushion they needed. Florida appeared to have its second score five minutes earlier, but Cory Stillman’s tally in the crease was waved off after it was ruled he kicked it in with his right foot.

“I didn’t really think about (the play against Montreal). In this game, you need to have as short a memory as you can,” said Higgins, who played in 55 games with the Rangers last year. “Everybody knew we needed another goal to feel more comfortable and make it easier on Vokie. He played a great game for us and deserves more of a lead than just one. It feels good to have it happen in a win, especially after losing and giving up the lead in the last two games.”

Florida’s Stephen Weiss later stole the puck from Brian Boyle inside the Panthers’ blue line with the Rangers’ goal empty and in a 6-on-4 advantage with 90 seconds left. Weiss then sent the puck 3/4 of the ice for the shorthanded tally, his 12th goal this year.

“It was a matter of keeping with it and just kept buzzing around the net,” Weiss said. “I thought (Higgins) was unbelievable tonight. He had great legs and was always around the net. It was a huge goal by him. It was massive. His play defensively was big and then to finish it off was huge for us. In a tight game like that, it’s always nice to get that second goal.”

Booth’s man-advantage goal in the second period was the team’s first in a span of 189 minutes, 22 seconds, with the previous one being Weiss’s against Buffalo on Dec. 23.

“We’ve been pushing up against .500 for a while,” said Florida coach Pete DeBoer. “The forwards bounced back after a bad outing (against Montreal). I don’t think anyone’s thinking about blowing leads. We didn’t do anything different than we did in the other two. We scored the second goal instead of giving up the tying goal.”

Vokoun was sharp in the third period with the Panthers up by just one. The Czech goalie stopped Brandon Dubinsky point-blank at 4:07 after he received a nifty pass from behind the net. Vokoun then fended off Brandon Prust on a short breakaway after a turnover a minute later by Bryan McCabe in his own end.

Vokoun recorded his fifth shutout and first since blanking Philadelphia on Dec. 20. He has stopped 77 of his last 80 shots in his last two starts.

NOTES: In his last two games, Florida G Tomas Vokoun has a .963 save percentage and 1.46 GAA…His four other shutouts were at Calgary (Oct. 14), vs. Tampa Bay (Oct. 16), at Washington (Dec. 9) and at Philadelphia (Dec. 20)…Last season, Vokoun was at his hottest in January, recording four shutouts…LW Chris Higgins has 98 goals in his career while Panthers coach Pete DeBoer has 90 career NHL wins…It was the second time this season the Panthers have recorded an even-strength goal, power-play goal and shorthanded goal in the same game, which was also accomplished in a 6-2 win over Buffalo on Dec. 17…In the previous meeting between the two teams on Nov. 26, the Rangers turned the trick, with Derek Stepan scoring even strength, Ryan Callahan a man up and Brandon Prust shorthanded in a 3-0 win…The Rangers dropped to 22-15-3 and return home to host Carolina on Wednesday.

Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL
Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com