Rangers’ Home Struggles Continue vs. Cats

PANTHERS 4, RANGERS 3 (SO)

For months, hockey analysts have been trying to determine whether the Panthers are a playoff team or not.

The Florida stickhandlers haven’t been able to figure that out themselves over a zig-zag-fire-the-coach season, leaving them still groping for a postseason berth.

In full view of a capacity Garden crowd last night, the Panthers pounced and clawed the Rangers to the tune of 4-3 in a shootout. This, at least, keeps their flickering playoff hopes alive while dismaying the home crowd.

With three weeks remaining before the playoffs are to begin, the Rangers high command will be examining ways and means of eliminating what seems to be a Blueshirts allergy to winning at home recently. They are winless in their last six home games.

Led by the indestructible, record-breaking Jaromir Jagr, the Floridians rebounded from a 2-0 first period deficit. They tied the count in the second and — with Jagr’s magnificent passing went ahead in the third but the Rangers tied it forcing overtime.

O.T. was, as usual, thrilling with chances galore at each end but neither team scored, hence the Skills Competition.

The Panthers then hung on long enough — prevailed in the shootout — to make it an awfully frustrating night for Alain Vigneault‘s troupe.

But with the quick turnover — a jet flight to St. Paul — all may be smiles tonight playing the Minnesota Wild.

OVERVIEW: Sometimes a game can seem too easy. The Rangers ran up a two-goal first period lead and played as if they would continue building on it in the middle frame. But they took their feet off the accelerator, Florida bounced back and eventually, it led to the Shootout and the Panthers prevailed.

WHAT WENT WRONG:

1. BLOWING A LEAD: Jumping into a 2-0 first period lead, the Blueshirts were on the cusp of blowing the visitors out of the building, but Alain Vigneault’s skaters sagged in the second period. Florida tied the score and, despite the Rangers third period tying goal, they were foiled in the shootout.

2. INABILITY TO WIN AT HOME: Whatever the reason — trying to be too cute in front of The Garden crowd, or whatever — the Blueshirts now are winless in their last half-dozen games at The World’s Most Famous Arena.

3. RAANTA REDUCED TO NORMALCY: James Reimer beats Antti Raanta in the shootout. The Panthers netminder stopped the usually successful Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zebanejad and finally Michael Grabner, taking his first Shootout shot of the season. Raanta couldn’t blank the Cats.

TURNING POINT: Aleksander Barkov delivered a splendid backhander, beating Raanta in the Shootout. Then Reimer stops Grabner and it’s game-over.

WHAT THEY SAID:

MSG NETWORKS ANALYST STEVE VALIQUETTE: “The Rangers couldn’t find what they needed to do to put Florida away. It was frustrating for everybody because the Rangers had plenty of opportunities.”

MSG NETWORKS ANALYST RON DUGUAY:Derek Stepan continues to play well and get good chances, but can’t seem to score.”

DEREK STEPAN: “We weren’t sharp enough in the second period. If we play a complete 60, we’ll be fine.”

ALAIN VIGNEAULT: “We had a real good start, but we didn’t sustain it in the second period. In the third, we played extremely well. As for home ice — it’s 200 by 85 whether you’re home or away. As simple as that.”

ANTTI RAANTA: “We had chances, but couldn’t get it done and now prepare for Minnesota.”

RICK NASH: “We have to simplify our game at home; the way we do on the road and succeed so well there. We have to bring our A-game against Minnesota.”

MSG NETWORKS ANALYST DAVE MALONEY:Brendan Smith‘s minutes have gone up because he’s good when he’s got the minutes. This was his best offensive game. Now he’s one of the main guys with all the injuries.”

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Minnesota’s Wild has emerged as one of the quiet elite teams in the NHL. This will be a challenge for the Rangers away game superiority. Game Time: 7 p.m. TV: MSG Network.

BOTTOM LINE: It isn’t often that Zuccarello — or the Rangers for that matter — lose a shootout. But Reimer bested Raanta and the best that could be said for the Blueshirts is that the club got a point out of it.