NEWARK, N.J. -- Jacob Markstrom hasn’t been benched much in his life. It’s obvious he doesn’t like it.
Since returning to the Panthers’ starting lineup after watching Scott Clemmensen replace him for consecutive games, Markstrom has come back with a vengeance stopping 77 of 79 shots in leading the Panthers to wins in Carolina and New York.
“There’s a healthy competition here between Clemm and myself,” Markstrom said after a workout at Prudential Center on Friday.
“I didn’t win for a couple and he came in and played well. He’s a great goalie and it’s a great competition. The coach’s job has to pick the goalie he thinks gives us the best chance to win. I worked hard in practice and tried to get better. That’s all you can do.”
Opponents scored first on Markstrom in his previous four games before coach Kevin Dineen went with Clemmensen on March 14 against the Bruins.
Clemmensen played a good game against Boston, so he was back between the nets the following game against the Islanders.
Markstrom returned Tuesday against Carolina and didn’t give up a goal until there was 2:33 left when the Hurricanes scored on a power play chance. The Panthers had already built themselves a three-goal cushion by then.
When the Rangers scored in the third period on Thursday, the Panthers were up 2-0.
“I think he’s made a silent statement that is based only on hockey,” Dineen said. “That’s what I’ve been looking for. We’re done talking about potential and this guy or that guy. Just go out and play and show us what you can do.”
Markstrom says he doesn’t know how to explain why he gave up so many early goals. In his previous four starts before coming back, Markstrom gave up goals within the first three shots of the game.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “I wanted to help the team and win games. You don’t want to give up those early goals. But I can’t look back at the good or the bad. Tomorrow is another game.”
Thursday’s win may have been Markstrom’s most impressive in his short time with the Panthers.
Markstrom’s signature victory prior to Thursday was a 40-save performance in a 2-1 win at Montreal last season. On Thursday, he shut down a Rangers team that had won three straight and is in a fight for a spot in the playoffs.
“It’s more fun when you win, makes it fun to come to the rink,” said Markstrom, whose 44 saves against the Rangers was a career high.
“I feel good right now. I’ve been playing since our season started in San Antonio, so it’s been a long season. I believe in myself. When things go bad, you can’t start changing things.”
This and that
• Rangers captain Rick Nash avoided suspension from the league for his open-ice hit on Tomas Kopecky during Thursday’s game.
Nash left his feet and came down on Kopecky’s head with his elbow; Kopecky briefly left the game but returned to score the clincher with 58 seconds left.
“I’m glad I’m fine. I just had a little deja vu,” Kopecky said of the hit to his head. “Right after it happened I thought it had happened before. Then I came to the bench and I was fine. I didn’t have a headache, no blurry vision.”
Dineen said he didn’t want to comment on the league’s decision — likely because he didn’t want to face a fine for the second time in a week. Dineen was slapped with a $10,000 fine for Eric Selleck’s instigator penalty in Carolina.
• When the Panthers opened their season against Carolina on Jan. 19, Dineen had an odd line pairing as he had 19-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau next to Alex Kovalev — 20 years his senior. Kovalev, now 40, officially retired earlier this week.
“He was a great player who had a great player,” Huberdeau said. “He shouldn’t have any regrets. He tried to come back and it just didn’t work out. He helped us at the beginning of the season and he really helped me relax during my first NHL game. I’ll always remember that.”
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has missed the past 10 games after dislocating a shoulder but could return Saturday against the Devils.