NEW YORK -- It was a glorious chance missed that had Brad Richards seething with frustration during the second period. After whiffing on the wide-open, yawning net, the veteran center smashed his stick in disgust at what should have snapped his eight-game goalless streak.
This isn't last season, though.
Instead of letting that frustration fester or let the mounting pressure paralyze his play, Richards regrouped with a redemption shot that snapped a 2-2 draw in the third and would later add a key assist on the power-play marker that would stand up as the game-winner in the Rangers 4-3 win over the Panthers on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
"I was surprised Hags kept giving it to me because I kept messing it up," Richards joked of linemate Carl Hagelin, who set up both his goal and the grade-A scoring chance that came just one period prior.
See, this is a different Brad Richards than the one whose regression was painful to watch last season. This is not the same player whose confidence was shattered and game in disarray. Instead, this is the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner who knows he can still play at an elite level and leads the team with 15 points.
For head coach Alain Vigneault, who wasn't in New York for Richards' dreadful 2013 campaign, he expected nothing less from one of his team's veteran leaders.
"You expect a player of his experience to continue to play and to continue to play well and that's what he did," Vigneault said, marveling at the sharp wrister Richards unleashed from the left faceoff circle 46 seconds into the third. "That was an unreal shot he took there."
Richards' goal was an important one in setting a tone for a third period against a desperate Panthers team winless in eight straight games.
"He wants to be a difference-maker," said defenseman Dan Girardi. "A guy like him, he's gonna keep comin'."
As did the Rangers, who were up-and-down throughout the first forty minutes of play. Entering the third period tied after goals from both J.T. Miller and Derek Dorsett, the Blueshirts elevated their battle level with determination to secure their third straight win.
Similar to Richards' turnaround this season, the team's previously-maligned power-play has appeared to maneuver an about-face. The unit came through at 6:16 of the third with a vital 5-on-3 power-play that was crisp and well-executed, capped by Mats Zuccarello's second marker of the season.
"It feels like a power-play," Richards said. "It didn't feel like much of a power-play last year."
The Rangers have scored with the man-advantage in five of the last seven games -- cashing in on 6-for-24 (25 percent) during that stretch -- and now lead the league with three 5-on-3 goals.
"We have a purpose out there and it's the same power-play every night," Richards said. "We can work together on it. We practice it every day. The guys on it, everybody's communicating in practice. Everyone has a voice on it. It's fun to be cohesive like that."
Surprisingly, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said the team identified Sunday's game as a "must-win."
The former Vezina Trophy winner, who made 24 saves to record his sixth win of the season, is 5-3-0 in his last eight starts with a 1.64 goals against average, .936 save percentage and two shutouts during that span.
"I think we all see ourselves as a good team. We want to be up there and compete against the best," Lundqvist said. "We need to start winning more games and I think the past couple of weeks we've put more pressure on ourselves to do well every night."