By IRA PODELL
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers used a fast start and a furious finish to put away the lowly Florida Panthers and lock up a victory they had to have in the push for the playoffs.
Derick Brassard and Rick Nash scored power-play goals in the opening 10 minutes, and Mats Zuccarello, Brassard and Brad Richards turned a tight game into a rout with goals 3:25 apart late in the third period of the Rangers' 6-1 victory on Thursday night.
The Rangers remained in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, tied with Winnipeg in points but holding the final playoff spot because they have a game in hand on the Jets.
Zuccarello and Brassard both finished with two goals, Nash and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan added two assists each, and Richards also had with a two-point night as New York quickly erased the memory of a lackluster loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday that temporarily halted their surge toward the postseason.
The Rangers (22-17-4) will play at Buffalo on Friday and face desperate New Jersey at home Sunday. All of New York's final five games are against teams below the playoff cutoff in the East.
"It's a huge game," Nash said. "We've got to get a win (Friday) night. We'll enjoy this for a couple of hours, then go back to work tomorrow morning."
Brassard and Nash both scored power-play goals, with help from Callahan in the first, and Zuccarello found the net for the second straight game to give the Rangers their sixth win in nine games (6-2-1).
Zuccarello scored in the second period and then added his second of the night with 4:49 left when he tipped the puck in after Richards raced it up ice. Brassard made it 5-1 just 1:24 later with his second of the game, with an assist from Nash, and Richards pushed the lead to five goals with 1:24 remaining.
The loss on Tuesday enabled Winnipeg to get even in points with the Rangers. Winnipeg kept pace Thursday with an overtime win over Carolina.
"It's important. We don't need help," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the standings. "I think it's an opportunity for some guys to step up. You shouldn't feel the pressure and shy away from it.
"That's the way you need to take it as an individual and as a group."
Henrik Lundqvist made 34 saves for his 20th win. Even in this lockout-shortened, 48-game season, Lundqvist reached 20 for the eighth straight time.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored in the second period for Florida (13-24-6), which has an NHL-low 32 points. Scott Clemmensen stopped 24 shots, but the Panthers lost their fourth in a row and for the fifth time in six games despite holding a 35-30 edge in shots.
"You lose by five goals, it's pretty hard to put anything (positive) to it," disappointed Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "It's a results business. Tonight is another example that we have to be a lot better."
The Rangers found their offense by taking advantage of the NHL's worst penalty-killing unit in the first period. New York had been 0-for-14 with the advantage in its previous four games, but connected on its first two tries to grab a 2-0 lead.
Brassard got it started at 3:05 after Callahan had a shot blocked by Clemmensen. Nash got the puck behind the net and found Brassard, leading to a goal from the doorstep. It was Brassard's ninth of the season and second in eight games since he came to the Rangers at the trade deadline from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Nash, a former Blue Jackets star now in his first season with New York, netted his 18th goal at 9:10 with a blistering wrist shot from the right circle off the rush following a pass from Callahan during another power play.
It is the fourth time this season the Rangers scored more than one goal on their power play that came in ranked 20th in the NHL and produced only 20 goals in the previous 42 games.
"We really want to get those first goals," said Nash, who has played in the postseason just once. "We've got to pour it all into every game now. It's so important. We're desperate for points."
On the flip side, the Panthers came in having killed only 73.5 of their short-handed situations this season. Florida improved in the second period, turning aside both New York advantages.
However, with the teams at even strength, Zuccarello pushed the Rangers' lead to 3-1 at 16:34 with a backhanded shot from right in front after Ryan Clowe skated back and forth behind the net before getting the puck to him.
Huberdeau had gotten the Panthers within 2-1 with 4:43 left in the first when he used a brilliant skating move to get around Zuccarello and beat Lundqvist with a shot for his 14th of the season.
New York's third-period onslaught dashed any Panthers' hopes of a late comeback.
"We tried to do our best in the third, but it didn't work," Panthers leading scorer Tomas Fleischmann said. "Positive in a game like that? Nothing really positive."
NOTES: The Rangers were without C Brian Boyle, who injured his right leg on Tuesday. He is expected to miss both games this weekend. … Callahan, who played in his 400th NHL game, received the team's Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award for the fourth time in five years. He and Adam Graves (five) are the only four-time winners. … Florida recalled D Alex Petrovic from San Antonio of the AHL, and he made his NHL debut. The Panthers have used 37 players this season. … The Rangers are 24-6-3 in their last 33 games against Southeast Division opponents, including an 9-3-1 this season. … New York has earned at least one point in 89 consecutive games when leading after the second period (83-0-6), dating to the 2009-10 season.
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