Rangers, Panthers aim to shake off recent funks

For the New York Rangers, all eyes are on coach Gerard Gallant and winger Alexis Lafreniere.

The Rangers, who will visit the Florida Panthers on Sunday, seem likely to return Lafreniere to the lineup.

Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, was benched for Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his first healthy scratch of the season.

The Rangers need more from Lafreniere, who had 12 goals and 21 points as a rookie and 19 goals and 31 points last season. This season, he has taken a step back with just five goals and 17 points in 36 games.

Some media members have criticized Lafreniere’s skating, effort, conditioning and neutral-zone coverage.

In the loss to Tampa Bay, the Rangers — without Lafreniere — competed with playoff intensity.

“Our overall play was better,” Rangers winger Mika Zibanejad said. “But we have to make sure we get two points next time.”

Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are tied for the team lead with 16 goals. Artemi Panarin leads New York in assists (32) and points (41). Defenseman Adam Fox, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 2020-21, is having another terrific season with seven goals and 28 assists. Fox leads Rangers skaters in ice time (25:01 per game).

Three other Rangers to watch are Igor Shesterkin, who won the Vezina Trophy last season as the NHL’s top goalie; center Vincent Trocheck, who played his first six-plus years in the league with the Panthers; and defenseman Jacob Trouba, who is one of the hardest hitters in hockey.

Shesterkin is 17-6-5 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.41 goals-against average. Trocheck has 12 goals and 16 assists. Trouba leads the Rangers with 116 hits and 91 blocks.

Still, the Rangers are just 1-2-1 in their past four games.

The Panthers, who had the NHL’s best regular-season record last season, are also slumping at 1-4-0 in their past five games.

On Friday night, Panthers went 0-for-6 on their power play and lost 4-0 to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Florida coach Paul Maurice is clearly not pleased with the play of his Panthers, who have not won consecutive games since Dec. 1-3.

“We have to learn how to fight,” Maurice said following the loss to Carolina.

The good news for the Panthers is that they are getting healthier. Star center Aleksander Barkov and defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Radko Gudas all returned from injuries this week.

Florida has three double-digit goal scorers: Carter Verhaeghe (18), Matthew Tkachuk (17) and Sam Reinhart (12).

Tkachuk also leads the Panthers in assists (26) and points (43). Defenseman Brandon Montour has 24 assists — three short of his career high set in 2018-19.

At goalie, the Panthers — on paper — are set up well with star veteran Sergei Bobrovsky, 34, and 2019 first-round pick Spencer Knight, 21.

But both goalies have struggled a bit this season. Bobrovsky is 8-11-1 with an .897 save percentage and a 3.23 GAA. Knight is 8-6-3 with a .907 save percentage and a 3.00 GAA.

–Field Level Media