With the playoffs within reach, the Rangers talked about needing a fast start each and every game down the stretch. They managed to do that last night at the Garden, scoring two power-play goals early and finishing off the Florida Panthers with three more in a 3:25 span late in the third period.
The Rangers (22-17-4), who have five games left, remained tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with Winnipeg (23-19-2), which beat Carolina in overtime last night. The Rangers have a game in hand.
"We just have to get in," said Brad Richards, who broke through in the third period for his third goal in 19 games, "but we still have a lot of work to do. We have five big games and we're not going to get any rest, and we're playing against a desperate Sabres team that's rested and waiting for us."
Brassard scored the first of his two goals at 3:05 of the first period on the power play for a 1-0 lead. He scored on a rebound of Nash's shot. Brassard, who also scored in the third period, has nine points (three goals, six assists) in eight games with the Rangers since he was acquired from Columbus in the Marian Gaborik deal.
"We have been struggling, so to score the first goal means a lot," Brassard said. "We played a fast game and we just executed."
The Rangers went on their second power play at 8:32 of the first after Zuccarello drew a penalty. Nash, who had a goal and two assists, collected a saucer pass from Ryan Callahan, who also assisted on the first goal, and whipped a shot from the right circle that caromed off goalie Scott Clemmensen's right arm and behind him.
The Rangers' power play, which had been 0-for-14 entering the game, was 2-for-2 after Nash's goal. Callahan has eight points (two goals, six assists) in the last nine games.
Rookie Jonathan Huberdeau halved the lead with a dazzling play at 15:17, beating Zuccarello with a deke and firing high past Henrik Lundqvist (34 saves) from the slot.
With 2:20 to play, Lundqvist stopped Quinton Howden's breakaway after initially coming way out of the net and retreating to stop Howden's shot just above the crease. The Panthers outshot the Rangers 12-11 in the first period and 35-30 overall.
Zuccarello restored the two-goal bulge with his second goal in two games, a pretty, top-shelf backhander from the doorstep after Ryane Clowe's pass bounced off the cage at 16:34.
"It's what we needed," Nash said, "a good skill play from him. It came at a perfect time."
Said coach John Tortorella: "Not many guys are going to score that goal."
With 4:49 left, Zuccarello was credited with his second goal for a 4-1 lead and Brassard and Richards finished it off.
"I don't think we felt like this game was over until we scored the fourth one," Lundqvist said. "The first 50 minutes was a tough game for us."