Re-acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday as part of an eight-player trade, Kovalev finished off the Rangers’ first win in five tries under new coach Glen Sather and first victory of any kind since January 23.
“It was nice to be a part of the effort in my first game,” said Kovalev, who spent his first 6 1/2 seasons with the Rangers. “It was a great feeling to score. I understand it was the first empty-netter this season (for the team).”
“I liked him,” Sather said. “I think we all knew that he was going to play well. Yeah, he’s got terrific instincts. He’s a great player. I don’t think that’s a secret around the league.”
New York was 0-5-1-1 since that win over Nashville. In the interim, Sather fired coach Bryan Trottier, replaced him behind the bench and sent four players to Pittsburgh for Kovalev, left wing Dan LaCouture and defensemen Mike Wilson and Janne Laukkanen.
“This team has as much style as any team, it just needs to keep things simple and try not to make too many giveaways,” Kovalev said.
Kovalev padded the Rangers’ already league-leading payroll. But it was Sandy McCarthy who scored the go-ahead goal for New York.
With 76 seconds left in the second period, McCarthy - whose $1.3 million salary ranks 18th on the team - poked the puck away from defenseman Pavel Trnka and snapped a wrist shot from the edge of the left faceoff circle over the right shoulder of goaltender Roberto Luongo.
“I was fortunate enough to knock it off his stick and draw in on (Luongo) and beat him on the short side,” said McCarthy, who ended a 32-game drought. “I thought I could set something up, but when I got in closer, I realized I had a good shot.”
All-Star defenseman Tom Poti had the other goal for the Rangers, who extended their winning streak against the Panthers to five games.
Florida got a goal from All-Star Olli Jokinen but fell to 1-4-1 in its last six home games.
“You just get tired of it,” Jokinen said. “You work hard, but the result doesn’t show it and you have nothing at the end.”
Asked whether his players have the ability to win a tight game like this, Panthers coach Mike Keenan said, “I hesitate to answer because I wanted to give a fair answer, and I think that you see half of this group that are really committed and really play hard every night. … And the other half aren’t. That’s about as simple as I can put it.”
A roughing penalty on defenseman Brad Ference midway through the first period gave the Rangers their second straight power play.
Poti converted at 10:41 when his centering attempt hit Jokinen’s skate and caromed past Luongo.
“The first goal just set the tone,” said Luongo, who made 23 saves. “Disappointing to come away empty. Just one of those things where you give the effort, but it doesn’t work out. Those are just tough goals to deal with.”
Jokinen tied it on the power play with 35 seconds to go in the period. Marcus Nilson got a rebound at the right side of the net and pushed it through the legs of New York defenseman Darius Kasparaitis to Jokinen. Florida’s lone All-Star flipped a shot under the right arm of goalie Mike Dunham for his 29th goal.
Dunham stopped 27 shots in his first start in a week, ending a personal five-game losing streak.
“When they tell me to play, I go out there and play,” Dunham said. “It was good to get out there after a week, and they tested me pretty good at times. I tried to get into the flow of the game and keep my body in front of the puck.”