W2W4: Panthers vs. Rangers

It wasn’t pretty Monday night, but the two points the Rangers collected from the Washington Capitals count all the same. Now they must turn right around from that shootout win to face the Florida Panthers at the Garden Tuesday. Here are three keys to watch for when the puck drops.

Sauer Is Sweet

Michael Sauer earned top-pairing duties in the absence of injured blueliner Daniel Girardi and acquitted himself wonderfully in taking on the Caps’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Chimera. As best I can remember, Ovechkin only had one move that really flummoxed Sauer, when the Russian wing tapped the puck off the side boards and raced around the D-man, only to be snuffed out by the omnipresent Marc Staal. After last night’s performance it seems like the Rangers can afford to rest Girardi again, but if the young defenseman continues his strong play, the impact of Sauer’s development into a responsible backliner will last well beyond Girardi’s return.

Shootout Studs

I’ll have to double check, but I’m fairly sure that “Zuccarello-Aasen” means “Supreme Shootout Overlord” in Norwegian. Diminutive wing Mats Zuccarello improved his NHL shootout record to a perfect 4-for-4, already giving him the second-most shootout goals in the league after Alex Tanguay. The Rangers have to feel pretty good about going to the shootout these days. In addition to Zuccarello, the recently acquired Wojtek Wolski, who also converted his attempt Monday, is one of league’s career leaders with 43.2 percent conversion rate in 44 attempts. When Erik Christensen returns to health, the Rangers may well be unstoppable. Christensen leads all active skaters with 30 or more shootout attempts, converting at a 55.3 percent clip. Oh yeah, and Henrik Lundqvist is second only to Martin Brodeur among active goalies with 33 shootout wins. Those talents could come in handy tonight, considering four of the Panthers’ past five games have required overtime.

Fatigue Factor

If it feels like the Rangers have played a lot of back-to-back games recently, you’re right. Tuesday’s matchup with the Panthers is their third such consecutive-night battle in the past seven games, with only the Jan. 22 game against the Atlanta Thrashers bookended by off days. By my pre-coffee count this morning, they’re 10-3 in the second of back-to-back games this season. However they’ve dropped their last two such games. If they can fight off fatigue -- and the Panthers -- tonight, they’ll be rewarded with a prolonged respite over All-Star weekend, with their next game coming Feb. 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.