Gerard Gallant had just watched his Rangers build a four-goal lead against the best team in the league and hold on to win, and yet the coach was not happy.
"It was no fun watching that,’’ Gallant said after the Rangers beat the Florida Panthers, 4-3, on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, handing the visitors their first regulation loss of the season in 12 games.
"You win a game against an undefeated team, a great team, and you don’t feel good about that one,’’ Gallant said. "I’ll take the two points later, but it’s not the way you’ve got to play hockey.’’
The Rangers (7-3-3) were playing only their fourth game at home and were coming off their second four-game road trip of the season. They had blown leads of 2-0 in Vancouver and 4-1 in Edmonton, losing both games in overtime. So when they took a 2-0 lead in the first period against Florida (now 10-1-1) on a power-play goal by Chris Kreider and a shorthanded goal by Adam Fox, the question had to be how big a lead they would need to secure a win this time.
The answer turned out to be four goals. They pushed the lead to 4-0 on four-on-four goals by K’Andre Miller and Ryan Strome 30 seconds apart in the second period, and that ended up being just enough.
The Rangers took a 4-1 lead into the final minutes, but Sam Reinhart scored at 18:34 and Patric Hornqvist made it 4-3 at 19:20, capping a three-goal period for the Panthers.
Without another brilliant performance by goalie Igor Shesterkin (42 saves), the Rangers might not have been able to hold on.
"Shesty’s been unreal this year,’’ Miller said. "We break down every once in a while, but we all have faith in him back there that he’s going to have our back and make a big save when we need it.’’
Even as the Rangers were building their lead, they were largely able to do so because of how well Shesterkin was playing. The Panthers had 11 shots on goal in the first period and outshot the Rangers 17-6 in the middle session.
So when Florida’s Eetu Luostarinen scored on a goal-mouth scramble 20 seconds into the third period, the alarm bells started to go off in the Rangers’ heads.
"We’re only human, so having those two games, Vancouver and Edmonton, going up [on the scoreboard] you’re trying to be confident, play the same way,’’ Mika Zibanejad said. "But it’s, they score, 4-1, and it’s — I don’t think it’s a weird reaction. You try to not to think about it, but again, they haven’t lost in regulation.’’
Zibanejad was asked why he thinks the Rangers keep struggling to hold leads in the third period.
"We talked [on the road trip] about being a little bit too passive, not sticking to our game plan,’’ he said. "Again, when you lose two games like that [in Vancouver and Edmonton] . . . I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I don’t have that in the back of my mind when it starts creeping up like that. But you try to fight it off. You try to work as hard as you can try to close out the game.
"And again, we won. Let’s not forget that,’’ Zibanejad said. "We took two points against a really good team, one of the best teams in the league right now. We’re happy about that.’’
Kreider potted a rebound of Zibanejad’s shot on the power play at 7:52 of the first period for his ninth goal and Fox scored shorthanded with 5.9 seconds remaining in the period. Miller scored his first goal of the season on an end-to-end rush at 12:48 of the second period to make it 3-0. Strome finished off a pass from Artemi Panarin at 13:18 to make it 4-0.