Surprising Rangers visit Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers are seemingly going in opposite directions … yet they are in virtually the same spot.

The Rangers, who decided this past February to trade assets and start a rebuilding process in 2018-2019 with a first-year NHL head coach in David Quinn and a bunch of young players, are 13-11-1 (29 points).

Meanwhile, the Panthers, who fell just one point short of the playoffs last season and decided to go for it this time around by acquiring high-scoring winger Mike Hoffman, are just 11-11-5 (27 points).

The Panthers, who will host the Rangers on Saturday night, are coming off a 5-2 loss to the best offensive machine in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche.

Florida has just eight points (3-3-2) out of this long home stretch that has only the Rangers game remaining, and that doesn’t sit well with the team.

“The only positive we want to look at is wins,” said Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, who took the loss against Colorado. “We can’t accept losses in this room.”

Saturday’s matchup will feature Luongo and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, who have more goaltending credentials than any other active duo in the NHL, ranking first and second in career appearances, wins and shutouts among active players.

Lundqvist, 36, is one of the leaders on a young Rangers team that also includes defenseman Marc Staal, 31, and winger Mats Zuccarello, 31.

Everyone else in the core of the team is under 30, including center Mika Zibanejad, 25, who leads the Rangers in assists (17) and points (25); and winger Chris Kreider, 27, who leads the team in goals (14).

Among the younger Rangers to watch are rookie forwards Filip Cytil, 19, and Lias Andersson, 20, who were both first-round picks last year and are already in the rotation. Chytil, with five goals and four assists, has been especially impressive.

Another young gun on the Rangers is 20-year-old center Brett Howden, who has four goals and nine assists. Neal Pionk, 23, is in his first full year in the NHL and leads Rangers defensemen in points.

All that young talent is a major shift from the veteran team that had made the playoffs seven years in a row before last season, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014.

With this season’s team, the Rangers are taking more of a long view, and they will arrive in Sunrise as a well-rested team since they haven’t played since Sunday’s 4-3 shootout loss at the Winnipeg Jets.

“It would’ve been nice to play right away after that Winnipeg game, but this gives our injured guys a chance to get healthy,” Quinn told The New York Post. “The break comes at a good time.”

Indeed Zuccarello, who missed the previous five games due to a groin injury, practiced in full this week and should be ready for the Panthers. Winger Vladislav Namestnikov, who has missed three games due to a concussion, also appears ready to return.

Rangers defensemen Adam McQuaid and Brendan Smith, both dealing with lower-body injuries, could be ready for Saturday. But Quinn has eight defensemen on his roster, and he has shuffled that deck all season. Therefore, Smith and McQuaid will be game-time decisions pending their health and how Quinn feels about his other defensemen at that moment.

One player who will not return on Saturday is winger Pavel Buchnevich, who has a thumb injury and is “a week away”, according to Quinn.

The most significant player on Florida’s injured list is center Vincent Trocheck, an All-Star in 2017 who will miss much of the season due to a fractured ankle.

New York has beaten the Panthers the only times they have played this season — 5-2 and 4-2. This is their final meeting of the regular season and the only one in Florida.