NEW YORK (TICKER) —The big guns are delivering for the New York Rangers, who hope it’s not too late.
Pavel Bure scored on a breakaway late in the second period and Alexei Kovalev put in a rebound early in the third as the Rangers gained ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers.
New York, which has won two in a row and is 4-1-1 in its last six games, closed within three points of slumping Boston for the final playoff spot in the East.
While the Bruins have played four fewer games, they are winless in eight games following a 3-2 overtime loss to Philadelphia.
“You have to remember there are a lot of people that are back in the lineup that weren’t in the lineup for the most part of the season, and that’s got a huge effect on us,” New York coach Glen Sather said.
Bure has eight points in seven games since returning from a knee injury and Kovalev has six goals in 10 contests since he was reacquired from Pittsburgh.
“I think we’re playing really well as a team,” Bure said. “There was so much confidence in everyone, the way we moved the puck. When you’re playing with guys with so much confidence, it’s a much easier game.”
Bure’s roughing penalty led to Olli Jokinen’s power-play goal that pulled the Panthers within 3-2 with 8:22 remaining in the second period. Just over five minutes later, the “Russian Rocket” redeemed himself.
Taking a lead pass from defenseman Cory Cross in the neutral zone, Bure used his speed to break in alone on former teammate Roberto Luongo. He deked the goaltender to the ice, them calmly slid the puck between his pads.
“That breakaway goal that he scored, it was the slighest flick of the wrist and he just beats the guy,” Sather said. “How many guys can make that play? He’s been making them for a long time. He’s exciting to watch.”
Bure played his best game since returning to the lineup, getting a number of excellent scoring chances. He also picked up an assist and finished with eight shots. Kovalev and defenseman Brian Leetch had five shots apiece.
“We’re playing pretty good hockey now,” Rangers captain Mark Messier said. “Our offense is starting to come together. We had a lot of scoring chances and the power play is looking much better.”
Luongo made a kick save on defenseman Vladimir Malakhov’s slap shot, but Kovalev poked in the rebound to give the Rangers a three-goal cushion 39 seconds into the third.
The Rangers peppered Luongo with 47 shots, a season high for a Florida opponent. New York’s Mike Dunham made 33 saves.
“You can see the difference in the people that they have up front, and it might be an exceptional mix now that they have added Kovalev,” Florida coach Mike Keenan said.
“Since we’ve gotten everybody healthy, even for a few games after that, it took some time to be more cohesive,” Rangers center Bobby Holik said. “We’re finding that players are becoming very comfortable in their roles that they’re in and we’re playing as a team.”
The Panthers opened the scoring on Kristian Huselius’ goal 7:36 into the first, but the Rangers responded with three straight. Leetch and Radek Dvorak tallied 84 seconds apart to give New York the lead midway through the period and Messier made it 3-1 with 1:25 remaining in the first.
“The score was 5-2 and it was very much the right score,” Jokinen said.
But the Rangers answered 53 seconds later as defenseman Tom Poti fed Leetch, who kept the puck in at the blue line and blasted a slap shot past Luongo from the top of the slot.
Less than two minutes later, rookie Jamie Lundmark started a rush, passing ahead to Holik on the left wing. Holik’s pass was blocked, but Dvorak grabbed the rebound in the slot and beat Luongo to put the Rangers ahead for good.
“They have a very experienced team and you can’t be fishing for pucks all night,” Keenan said. “They have very powerful forwards and we were overmatched.”