By Sean Hartnett
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Having returned home from a season-long five-game road trip, the Rangers played like a team that was out of gas throughout Sunday night’s 2-1 victory over the Florida Panthers. Rangers skaters showed up without the legs or execution needed to pull out a victory over a Panthers team that dominated possession and excelled in the cycle game.
Thankfully, scorching-hot goaltender Cam Talbot continued his mastery between the pipes. Talbot made 38 saves, including 20 during a one-sided second period controlled by the visitors.
“There’s no doubt tonight was all about Cam,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “Not only from the start of the game, but in that second period there where we barely touched the puck.”
A dissatisfied Vigneault bemoaned the Rangers for allowing 98 shot attempts.
“I think they had close to 100 shot attempts tonight,” Vigneault said. “One player gave us a chance to get two points and we were fortunate that he was on top of his game.”
Teammates call him “Calm Talbot” for a reason. Talbot’s sensational play has been key throughout the Rangers’ quest for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The 44-17-7 Rangers lead the Eastern Conference with 95 points. Their .699 points percentage is best among the 30 NHL teams.
“He was our best player for sure,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “He gave us a good chance to win and ultimately was probably the deciding factor. We gave up a lot of Grade A opportunities, unfortunately, and he was there to stand tall and make the saves.”
Versatile forward James Sheppard reentered the lineup after winger Tanner Glass was deemed unavailable due to what Vigneault described as “upper-body soreness.” Sheppard skated in Glass’ place on the left wing of the Rangers’ fourth line alongside center Dominic Moore and right wing Jesper Fast.
Sheppard made intelligent plays in all areas of the ice and scored the game’s opening goal at 17:44 of the first period. Given Glass’ well-documented possession struggles and Sheppard’s ability to win battles in corners and retain possession, it’s confusing why Sheppard sat out three consecutive games prior to Glass’ injury.
Vigneault praised Sheppard following the 2-1 victory.
“I thought he played a strong game for a guy coming in,” Vigneault said.
Having joined the Rangers prior to the Mar. 2 trade deadline, Sheppard is impressed by what he’s seeing from Talbot.
“He’s very impressive,” Sheppard said. “Even in practice, there’s not a lot that goes by him. He has that competitiveness and that quickness that he can get to those second and third pucks. He works hard at it. It’s great to see and great to have.”
Talbot is 5-0-1 with a 1.00 goals-against average, a .967 save percentage and one shutout in his last six appearances. He has gone 13-2-3 while Henrik Lundqvist has been sidelined with a vascular injury.
With Talbot and backup Mackenzie Skapski manning the crease since Feb. 4, the Rangers have gone 15-2-3 during Lundqvist’s absence.
AV: ST. LOUIS INJURY DOESN’T SEEM SERIOUS
Rangers fans collectively held their breath when 39-year-old winger Martin St. Louis appeared to suffer a knee injury late in the third period. Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov fell shoulder-first on St. Louis’ right knee at 15:28 of the third period.
Concerns grew when the MSG broadcast caught St. Louis describing the injury as a “pop” to team trainer Jim Ramsay.
Rangers fans were finally able to exhale when Vigneault spoke after the game. Vigneault indicated that he did not think the injury was serious.
“It doesn’t seem to be serious, but we’ll know more (Monday),” Vigneault said.
St. Louis has only recorded three points in his last 10 games. Despite his recent dip in production, a healthy St. Louis is absolutely crucial to the Rangers’ chances of replicating last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. In 88 career playoff games, St. Louis has collected 83 points.
Longtime teammate Dan Boyle described St. Louis as a key player.
“I saw him real quick on the way in,” Boyle said. “Obviously, I don’t want him missing any time. He’s a key part of this team. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.”
The Rangers do not have a practice scheduled for Monday. They will practice Tuesday at their Greenburgh training facility.
Next up on the schedule is a rematch with the 41-21-6 Chicago Blackhawks at MSG on Wednesday night. Recently, the Rangers pulled off a 1-0 overtime victory over Chicago on Mar. 8 at United Center. Derrick Brassard scored the game-winner 32 seconds into overtime.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.