SUNRISE, Fla. — Given the fact that the Rangers hadn’t played in six days, it probably would have been reasonable to expect them to begin Saturday night’s game against the Panthers a little sluggishly.
Instead, they took an early two-goal lead, then kept exchanging goals as they tried to hang on for dear life.
In the end, it was Kevin Hayes — playing the wing as part of an experiment by coach David Quinn — who played the role of hero. He beat Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo to give the Rangers a 5-4 shootout victory in the opener of their two-game trip to Florida.
All three Rangers shooters — Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Shattenkirk and Hayes — scored. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped the first Panthers shooter, Aleksander Barkov, and allowed a goal on the next attempt, by Jonathan Huberdeau.
The Rangers are 14-12-3, including 6-3 in games that go beyond regulation. They are 5-1 in shootouts.
“Five-and-1? I would say we’re good in the shootout,’’ Zibanejad said. “Those points are important. You take them lightly, you might look at the end of the season and be out [of the playoffs] by a point. Where if you won one or two more shootouts, you would have been in.’’
With six days between games and his team in a 1-4-1 skid, Quinn felt the need to try something different. His idea was to put the team’s top three scorers together on the same line, which meant moving Hayes, usually the team’s No. 2 center, to right wing so he and No. 1 center Zibanejad could play on the same line with Chris Kreider.
“We’re in a little bit of a rut, and it’s nice to have a big line, figuratively and literally,’’ Quinn said of his experiment. “And I just want to see what it looks like. I’m just curious.’’
Afterward, Quinn said he thought the line looked great in the first period and not so great in the second and third — though he said the whole team didn’t look all that good in the final two periods. He said he’ll take a look at the video before deciding whether to keep the trio together.
Zibanejad got the Rangers on the board at 3:37 of the first period, slamming in the rebound of a shot by Hayes, and Hayes set up Vladislav Namestnikov’s shorthanded goal at 18:10 that made it 2-0.
A penalty to Marc Staal 11 seconds into the second period gave the Panthers their third power play of the game, and they cashed in when former Ranger Keith Yandle beat Lundqvist (27 saves) with a one-timer from the right point 57 seconds into the period.
Tony DeAngelo’s turnover in the neutral zone led to Huberdeau going the other way on a two-on-one, and he tied it at 2 at 4:14 when he beat Lundqvist with a wrister that probably should have been stopped.
Lundqvist hung his head after the puck slid between his pads. He blamed the pads, saying he’s been trying to break them in for a month.
“I finally decide to switch to new pads and this is what happens,’’ he said with a chuckle. “So we’ll see. We might go back to the old pads for the next game, to be honest. They didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable out there, and that’s usually the case when you switch equipment.’’
Matt Beleskey’s first goal of the season gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead, but Aaron Ekblad tied it for the Panthers before the period ended. Fredrik Claesson put the Rangers up 4-3 at 1:32 of the third, but Barkov’s power-play goal at 10:51 forced the overtime.