For Rangers, the grind starts now

NEW YORK -- For a team that has cleared so many hurdles throughout the first three months of the season, the Rangers have a daunting test of endurance that lies ahead.

The Blueshirts emerged from a myriad of distractions -- the loss of their best defenseman, a lengthy European road trip and a month's worth of omnipresent cameras -- in sole possession of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

That's where they remained after Thursday's 3-2 overtime win over the Panthers -- one point ahead of the scorching Bruins in the East while climbing to first place in the NHL -- and that's where they aim to stay with the dog days ahead and an unfamiliar return to normalcy finally here.

"We're not gonna exhale," coach John Tortorella said after his team's third straight win. "Now we have to handle the normalcy of a season, the grind of a season."

With no clear obstacle in their direct path, the resilient Rangers may face their biggest challenge yet. After all, it's not the Winter Classic games that are hard to get up for, but rather the back-to-back sets in January, or the random Sunday night game against Columbus in the middle of February.

Wary of a letdown following Monday's spirited comeback win over the Flyers, the Rangers set the tone Thursday with an energetic first shift from Brandon Dubinsky, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan.

The team suffered stagnant stretches in the six or seven minutes that followed and were burned -- Florida's Marcel Goc converted on an odd-man rush 4:16 into play -- but then flashed their trademark resolve in tying the game on defenseman Anton Stralman's first goal of the season late in the period.

Even after coughing up a game-tying goal 36 seconds after Ryan Callahan's power-play marker in the third, the Rangers buoyed themselves against a shift in momentum.

"It felt weird not having cameras and microphones in the locker room before the game and it was left to us to generate the energy," said goaltender Martin Biron, who recorded his eighth win of the season. "January is always that kind of month for everyone in the league. ... The points in January are the most important ones because it sets you up for the final drive."

Marian Gaborik helped snag the extra point in overtime. The 29-year-old sniper snapped a 2-2 tie, beating Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen, who was otherwise remarkable in turning away 38 shots.

"We've won different ways this year, and even though it was a tie game we stuck with it and didn't panic," said Gaborik, who is tied for second in the league with 23 goals. "We just kept going and that's how we got to this point so far this season."

Thursday's win wasn't just an important one with respect to the standings -- the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins are nipping at their heels after delivering back-to-back routs in which they have outscored opponents 15-1 -- but also one to further establish their identity.

The Rangers have withstood every conceivable affront to their routine in the first 37 games of the season. And with everything settling back to normal, they'll need to show they can stay the course.

"These couple of months are the guts of the season and that's when teams come at you," Tortorella said. "That's when you grind. It's our next step in trying to find out who we are."