NEW YORK – Both the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers made the most of their opportunities Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Sabres scored on their only shot of the second period and the Rangers hung around long enough to pot a late third-period goal to clinch both a 2-1 win and home ice in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Drew Stafford made his return to the lineup after missing the past four games due to injury. He picked up pretty much right where he left off, scoring Buffalo’s only goal.
Buffalo nearly skated into the second intermission with the lead, but the Rangers’ constant pressure in the offensive zone finally paid off. With 30.4 seconds left, Benoit Pouliot capitalized on a cross-ice backhand feed from Mats Zuccarello to beat Sabres goaltender Matt Hackett.
Rick Nash netted the game-winner when he netted a one-timer off a cross-ice pass from Martin St. Louis with 1:42 left in regulation.
“We couldn’t buy a shot there in the second period,” Stafford said. “We ended up scoring even, but that was a disappointing one because I felt as though we could’ve had it.”
The Sabres had only one shot in the second period and they did not miss their chance to score. Buffalo got on the board thanks to a double deflection as Tyler Ennis and then Stafford tipped in a Mike Weber shot at 9:06 to open the scoring.
“I felt as though we weren’t getting inside enough. We made a great play there, [Weber] getting it in front. I think Tyler might’ve gotten a stick on it. I don’t know if I touched it, I just tried to get in front and might’ve gotten a piece of it there,” Stafford said. “That’s usually how you score goals. Unfortunately we couldn’t get inside more.”
Stafford has 21 points (12+9) in 29 games so far in the 2014 calendar year, which averages out to .724 points per game.
With the assist, Weber upped his point streak to a career-high-tying three games. He last recorded points in three straight games from Dec. 27, 2010 to Jan. 1, 2011.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundvist turned aside 23 of the 24 shots he faced.
New York spent most of the period in the Buffalo end, outshooting the Sabres 18-1 in the second.
Hackett was busy all period and faced a bit of a scare with 2:11 to play. A one-timer by Brad Richards from the right point caught Hackett in the cage of his mask, stunning the goaltender for a moment and causing play to stop. Hackett said after the game that the shot dented the cage.
It’s the second straight game in which he’s taken a shot off the mask.
The training staff came over to check him out and he remained in the game. The Sabres have been decimated by injuries in the past few weeks, particularly between the pipes. Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth are out with lower-body injuries and Nathan Lieuwen was diagnosed with a concussion after the team’s game on Sunday. All three are expected to miss the rest of the season.
Hackett finished the game with 28 saves and is seeking his first win since March 20.
“I don’t know what to say. It feels like every game, it’s tough. It’s really frustrating. I want to get one for the boys and just can’t find a way right now. I don’t know. It’s frustrating.”
Sabres coach Ted Nolan liked the way Hackett battled in the crease and kept the score close.
“I thought he played a real strong game, kept us in the game and unfortunately, there was a slow line change for that winning goal in the third period also,” Nolan said. “…I don’t think it’s his play. It’s the play in front of him at times. He’s giving us a chance to win. That’s what you want from your goaltender. But that’s just the way it is.”
Hackett will start Buffalo’s final two games. They first head off to Boston for a 12:30 p.m. match against the Bruins on Saturday and then return home for the season finale on Sunday at 5 p.m. against the New York Islanders.
“There’s two more left and I want to get one. It’s been a while so no matter what, it sucks to lose, no matter how the team’s playing,” he said. “I thought we played really well in the first and the third. So we showed we can play with these teams, we’ve just got to find a way to do it the whole game.”
Buffalo held off the Rangers for most of the third period. New York didn’t record their first shot on goal in the period until there was 6:21 remaining.
The way the Sabres were able to hold the Rangers without a shot in the third period until there was only 6:21 remaining while also generating numerous chances in the Rangers zone is the way they want to play on a consistent basis. After the second period, Weber said that the start of the third was a model they can build off of.
“We got back to playing simple, smart hockey, going north-south, getting the puck in, getting pucks on Lundqvist. He’s one of the best goalies in the world. We needed to get pucks on him, get guys to the net,” he said. “That’s the good Sabres team. And, again, like we’ve had all season, we can’t sustain that constant pressure for a full 60.”
Of Buffalo’s 21 blocked shots in the game, Weber blocked six while center Brian Flynn blocked another three.
“Both those guys, they give us what they have to give on a nightly basis, particularly Weber,” Nolan said. “He’s had some moments but the one thing you can never complain about his determination, his work.”