SUNRISE, Fla. — The Rangers left here quickly late Saturday night, bound for home at last, and not a moment too soon.
During the past 11 games, they have played eight times on the road — in the process visiting three states, three Canadian provinces and four time zones — and lost seven of them.
The bitter end came in the form of a maddening, contentious 3-0 loss to the host Panthers in a meeting of two teams heading in opposite directions.
Florida, which has won a franchise-record eight straight games, was led by a sparkling outing by goalie Roberto Luongo, who saved 40 shots.
The Rangers are 5-11-2 since their 16-3-2 start. Next up are the two teams with the highest current point totals in the NHL — the Stars and Capitals. But at least those games will be at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers have won three of their last four home games but have played only three games at MSG since Dec. 6.
Now they will have a chance to get into a routine. They are not scheduled to leave the Eastern time zone again until a Feb. 25 visit to St. Louis. They have only two games outside the time zone until March 16.
“I think December was tough, and there also were a lot of games,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 17 saves. “I think the next few weeks we don’t play as much as we have, so we have to focus on preparing and having good practices and try to turn this around.”
The Rangers conceded they did many good things on the stat sheet last night, but they lamented not making things more difficult on Luongo with screens and traffic — and also for not taking advantage of Florida mistakes.
“There’s no doubt that Luongo had a good night, but you have to find a way to make it harder on him,” coach Alain Vigneault said.
The Panthers scored 24.8 seconds before the first intermission as Corban Knight backhanded a centering pass to Logan Shaw, who shoveled the puck past Lundqvist.
The most entertaining sideshow of the opening period was the dueling chants between Panthers fans and the many Rangers fans in attendance.
Rangers fans also deployed a famous, derogatory chant aimed at former Islanders great Denis Potvin. The wrinkle was that Potvin was in the building, doing his job as a Panthers TV analyst.
On the Panthers’ second goal, Lundqvist used his blocker to save a long shot by Alex Petrovic, but the puck bounced off the leg of Vincent Trocheck and into the net at 4:41. Brandon Pirri later made it 3-0.
Chris Kreider was called for a double minor 7:01 into the third period for cross-checking Willie Mitchell into the boards with a dangerous hit from behind, then for roughing when Pirri fought him in defense of Mitchell.
Perhaps it was a moment born of the Rangers’ frustration, which is mounting. “It’s a tight race now,” Lundqvist said. “We can’t take anything for granted . . . Playoff mode is going to come early for us this year.”
Notes & quotes: Kevin Hayes was a healthy scratch for the second game in a row, but Vigneault said he has been “working real hard” and expressed confidence that Hayes will “find his game.’’ He also stressed that it is nothing personal. “I think it has to be clear that Kevin Hayes the person, I think he’s a great kid, I really enjoy him,” Vigneault said. “The hockey player right now is not totally doing it for me. Two different things.” . . . Kevin Klein moved up to join Ryan McDonagh on the first defense pair. Dan Girardi was with Keith Yandle . . . Vigneault on Derek Stepan: “He needs to be better, like a lot of our players right now. There’s no doubt the effort is there and the preparation is there, but at the end of the day, it’s about results . . . ”