The New York Rangers were arguably the league’s most disappointing first-half team, but they are more than compensating in the second half.
The red-hot Rangers look to extend a 13-game point streak and move closer to the top of the Atlantic Division on Friday night when they visit the Florida Panthers, winners of a season-high five straight.
Reaching the All-Star break with a record of 28-24-7 and in danger of missing the playoffs was not what the Rangers (37-24-9) had in mind following an offseason in which they signed high-scoring centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to long-term contracts.
New York, though, went 1-0-1 in its final two games before the break and 9-0-2 in 11 contests since to move into sole possession of sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The surge has pulled the Rangers within five points of New Jersey for the Atlantic Division lead.
“We’ve really galvanized as a group to find a way to do things and get points,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “That speaks volumes for their character.”
Gomez scored the decisive shootout goal, and Henrik Lundqvist had another strong performance with 21 saves as the Rangers won 3-2 at Buffalo on Monday.
The victory was the third straight overall for New York, which hasn’t lost in regulation since Feb. 7. The 13-game streak is the Rangers’ longest without a regulation loss since they went 12-0-0 with two ties from Oct. 24-Nov. 24, 1993, the season they won their last Stanley Cup.
Lundqvist has been one of the biggest factors in the resurgence, going 8-0-2 with a 1.97 goals-against average and two shutouts in his last 11 starts. He is 6-1-0 with a 1.68 GAA and three shutouts in seven career games against Florida.
The Rangers are 2-0-1 this season against the Panthers (33-31-8), including a 5-0 victory at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 24.
Drury leads New York with three goals and six points this season versus Florida.
The Panthers are making a late-season push for their first playoff berth since 1999-2000, winning five straight to get within five points of eighth-place Philadelphia.
Panthers coach Jacques Martin knows his team doesn’t have an easy assignment as it tries to win six in a row for the first time since a seven-game run from March 17-29, 2006.
“They’re one of the better teams in the league in goals against,” Martin said of the Rangers on the Panthers’ official Web site. “We just have to think back a couple weeks ago when they spanked us. We’ve got to make good decisions with the puck. We’ve got to get our nose dirty.”
Tomas Vokoun figures to be back in net after making 27 saves in Wednesday’s victory. He has struggled in two of three starts this season against the Rangers, allowing five goals in his each of two losses while stopping 28 shots in a 3-2 shootout win on Nov. 23.
Panthers captain Olli Jokinen, the team leader in goals (30), assists (36) and points (66), has no goals and only three assists in his last nine games against New York.