BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ryan Miller has already played a key role in leading the Buffalo Sabres back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
With one clutch save among the 30 he made in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, Miller took the Sabres a step further by helping them clinch the Northeast Division title.
Miller’s blocker stop on Marian Gaborik midway through the second period turned the momentum in Buffalo’s direction in helping the team clinch its sixth division title and first since 2007. The save came with Buffalo clinging to a 3-2 lead and with the Rangers driving in on a 4-on-1 rush.
With Miller playing the shot, Brandon Dubinsky skipped a pass through the middle to Gaborik, who snapped a shot at the wide-open side. Miller, however, punched his blocker across to get a piece of the shot and deflect it out of play, and was rewarded by a lengthy standing ovation from the soldout crowd.
“That was one for the books,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “That was an absolutely fabulous save. I think our guys built momentum off of that and we really went after them.”
Miller even managed a smile, though he neglected to wear the divisional championship hat Sabres officials had distributed in the locker room following the win.
“It feels good,” Miller said. “It’s something we were hoping to accomplish at the start of the season. It’s one stop along the way.”
It was a different feeling for the Rangers, whose playoff hopes sustained a blow in the final week of the season. With three games left, the ninth-place Rangers lost ground to Philadelphia, and now sit three points back of Boston in the race for the East’s eighth and final playoff berth.
They’re not giving up, yet.
“This is our season,” Dubinsky said. “Until all eight teams are locked, we’re going to continue to fight.”
Brandon Prust and PA Parenteau scored for the Rangers, who lost in regulation for the first time in six games (5-1-1).
Rookie Tyler Ennis had a goal and two assists while Drew Stafford had a goal and an assist for Buffalo. Jochen Hecht, with the go-ahead goal, Derek Roy and Toni Lydman also scored for the Sabres, who chased Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist.
Miller (40-18-8) proved to be the difference as he matched the single-season franchise record for wins he set in 2006-07, and improved to 10-4-1 since leading Team USA to a silver medal at the Vancouver Games.
For his reward?
“I’m going to go to the spa and have a hot tub and massage and relax,” Miller said. “That’s it, and it’s back to work tomorrow.”
Tuesday’s game was decided in the second period after the two teams traded leads in a first period that ended tied 2-2.
Hecht, set up by Jason Pominville’s cross-ice pass, scored from the right circle at the 5:17 mark to chase Lundqvist, who allowed three goals on 16 shots.
Lydman put Buffalo ahead 4-2 by beating backup Alex Auld with a 35-footer to convert Stafford’s drop pass on an odd-man rush before the second period was over. Ennis then put the game out of reach by scoring 2:06 into the third period.
Auld allowed two goals on 14 shots. And it was an unlikely letdown by Lundqvist, who entered the game allowing 10 goals in his past six, including two shutout victories. Lundqvist was beaten by shots from the right side on all three goals he allowed, including Roy’s one-timer from a bad angle that sneaked in inside the near post.
Rangers coach John Tortorella declined to discuss his decision to yank Lundqvist.
“We didn’t play well enough to win,” Tortorella said. “We have another game to play tomorrow and we need to be better from our goaltending on out.”
In closing a six-game road swing, the Rangers return home to host Toronto on Wednesday.
Notes: Rangers RW Ryan Callahan returned after missing four games with a left knee injury. … Sabres captain D Craig Rivet did not play because of an illness, which forced him to leave practice a day earlier. … Buffalo closes its season with three road games, starting at Boston on Thursday. … Sabres D Tyler Myers, an NHL rookie of the year candidate, had an assist on Stafford’s goal.