NEW YORK (AP)—Marek Malik raised his stick and clapped his hands against it, thanking the home fans who have been merciless to him for the better part of two seasons.
The usual boos flipped to cheers and he graciously accepted them when he was recognized as the game’s second star.
Malik snapped a 32-game goal drought when he doubled New York’s lead in the second period.
“I felt pretty good even before that,” the defenseman said. “It’s much better to play when the team’s playing better. Sometimes all of us struggle.”
His difficulties and deficiencies always seem bigger. Not only has he felt the wrath of the crowd, but also sat out 15 games as a healthy scratch and missed 17 others due to injury.
“When he has gone in to play, with the exception of half a dozen games, he has a been a good player for us,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “He has been a great player lately.”
Malik added an assist on Nigel Dawes’ 10th that made it 4-0 in the third. Malik, who had three assists opening night against the Panthers, has posted five of his six points versus Florida.
“It’s the new combination, the Czech-Mexican combination. It’s Malik-Gomez now,” Jagr said. “It didn’t work with me and Scotty. Now you’ve got a new combination, 19 and 8, not 68.”
Jagr stretched the lead to 3-0 just 1:15 after Malik’s goal for the Rangers, 5-0-2 in their last seven. New York further proved it has put its blown five-goal lead to Montreal on Wednesday in the past.
Martin Straka made it 5-0 with 10:28 remaining.
“We let that go a long time ago,” Gomez said of the Montreal loss, “but when we had five, we were definitely going for six to make sure.”
New York showed no ill effects of a 4-3 win at Buffalo on Saturday and controlled play against the Panthers. Florida generated its only sustained pressure during a second-period power play.
“Once you’re winning, you feel confidence about your system, about your game,” Jagr said. “We had the same thing last year. We needed to win a lot of games at the end of the season to make the playoffs and I think this year we realize it, too.”
The Panthers seemed to have little left after pulling out a 2-1 overtime win at Philadelphia on Saturday night. They tied that one with 3.7 seconds left in regulation.
“They played with the puck, we played without it,” captain Olli Jokinen said of the Rangers. “The skill level and work ethic they have, we didn’t really have a chance.”
Florida lost for the fourth time in five games (1-3-1) and remained in 12th place, five points below the postseason cutoff in the East.
“We got lucky (Saturday),” goalie Tomas Vokoun said. “We don’t play well, that’s why we’re losing. It’s not by accident or about bad luck.”
Malik finally heard some cheers—albeit mixed in with the standard boos— when he drove toward the slot, took a feed from Straka, and powered a shot past Vokoun 4:57 into the second.
“I’m obviously happy when anybody scores,” Renney said, “but there are those moments in a season when you’re cheering real hard for somebody inside.”
Vilified for his penchant for turning over the puck and his nonphysical nature, despite standing 6-foot-6, Malik scored his first goal since April 5. He earned more praise for driving Brett McLean into the net after Lundqvist reached back to cover the puck.
“If we’re going to play like we know how to play, our confidence should be really high because we can play against anybody,” Malik said.
Jagr gave the Rangers more insurance, even though no lead has seemed safe since New York squandered its 5-0 edge at Montreal and lost in a shootout. Jagr went 12 games without a goal before ending that dry spell Saturday.
This one displayed the Rangers captain’s talent. He carried down the left side, drawing Vokoun out of the net. He made a move to get past him, then from below the goal line shifted to his backhand and neatly tucked the puck inside the post for his 17th.
Vokoun, who sat Saturday for the first time in six games, made 24 saves.
The Panthers will play 11 of their final 17 at home. … Gomez added two assists. … Rangers LW Marcel Hossa returned from a 17-game absence, caused by a bout with the flu and a stint in the minors. … New York was without Paul Mara (facial injury) and Colton Orr (upper body).