Rangers defenseman Libor Hajek, second from right, grabs Panthers right...

Rangers defenseman Libor Hajek, second from right, grabs Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist's helmet during a scuffle in the second period of an NHL game on Wednesday in Sunrise, Fla. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

SUNRISE, Fla. — The post-Christmas schedule began a couple of days later than it was supposed to for the Rangers, and the pre-Christmas schedule ended a little early, too. So, when they finally got back in action Wednesday night, taking on the Florida Panthers at FLA Live Arena, it had the feel of a restart.

And no, the Rangers did not get off to a good start.

Three third-period goals by the Panthers wiped out a Rangers lead and dealt the Blueshirts a stinging 4-3 loss Wednesday in the opener of their two-game Florida trip that concludes Friday with a New Year’s Eve game in Tampa against the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Goals by Artemi Panarin in the first period and Mika Zibanejad in the second gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead entering the third, but goals by MacKenzie Weegar, Carter Verhaeghe and one-time Rangers prospect Anthony Duclair put the Panthers ahead 4-2 before Chris Kreider's 19th goal — with goaltender Igor Shesterkin pulled for an extra skater — made it 4-3 with 44.4 seconds left. The Rangers couldn’t get one more goal to force overtime.

Shesterkin made 28 saves in his first start since Dec. 3.

"I was real happy with the first two periods, obviously,’’ Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. "In the third we got away from it, made a couple of mistakes and it ended up in the back of our net. But overall, for the first game [back], I thought, the fans got everything they wanted.’’

Except it was the Rangers’ third loss in their last five games (1-3-1). They still hold third place in the Metropolitan Division with a 19-8-4 record, but the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are three points behind them, have played one fewer game.

The game was the first for the Rangers since Dec. 17 when they lost to Gallant’s former team, the Vegas Golden Knights, 3-2, in a shootout at Madison Square Garden. Their last game before the Christmas break, against the Montreal Canadiens, Dec. 22, and their first game after it, Monday against the Detroit Red Wings, were both postponed by the NHL for COVID-19 reasons.

The Panthers hadn’t played in a while, either. Their last game had been on Dec. 16, as they’d been shut down by the NHL because they had so many players in COVID protocol.

Panarin opened the scoring at 11:08 of the first period with a slick goal, catching a pinpoint, 100-foot breakout pass from Ryan Strome in stride at the red line, then slipping the puck through his own legs to get it by Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and then finally slipping a backhander through the legs of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, his former Columbus Blue Jackets teammate.

The Panthers tied it 1-1 on Anton Lundell’s rebound goal at 5:09 of the second period, but the Rangers regained the lead before the period expired, on Zibanejad’s goal at 12:43. That was set up by another nifty play from Panarin, who lifted the stick of Florida defenseman Radko Gudas and stole the puck from him, then slipped a pass to a driving Zibanejad, who had just stepped onto the ice and raced to the net.

But defenseman Libor Hajek, playing in place of Ryan Lindgren (COVID protocol) took an interference penalty at 3:39 of the third period, and that opened the door for the Panthers to get back in. The Rangers killed the penalty, but Hajek was just out of the box and still on the ice — giving the Rangers three defensemen on the ice — when Weegar blasted a shot through traffic and past Shesterkin to tie the score 2-2.

Verhaeghe put Florida in front at 10:31 with a shot from the wing that Shesterkin probably should have stopped, and Duclair made it 4-2 at 14:40.

"You’re not going to find a team that doesn’t blow a lead in the third period through the course of the year,’’ defenseman Jacob Trouba. "You don’t want it to happen. I mean it happens. That’s part of life in the NHL.’’

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