NEW YORK – The setting was the regular season instead of the post-season, but the stakes seemed nearly as high for the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres.
Not since the second round of last year’s playoffs had the Rangers faced their Eastern Conference foes. Buffalo moved on to the conference finals then, and now both clubs face a second-half struggle just to get back into the tournament.
Petr Prucha and Brandon Dubinsky each had a goal and an assist to lift the Rangers to a 2-1 victory Wednesday night that stretched the Sabres’ losing streak to 10 games.
Buffalo snapped its run of three straight shootout losses, but couldn’t find a way to win. The Sabres haven’t come out on top since a 6-5 shootout victory at Philadelphia on Dec. 22 (0-5-5).
New York jumped from 10th place to eighth in the East with the win, five points in front of No. 11 Buffalo – the team with the NHL’s best record last season.
The Rangers shook off Monday’s poor 4-1 loss at Pittsburgh and earned their second consecutive win at home. Still, New York has won only twice in eight games (2-5-1).
“Obviously, we’ve had a bad string, but for our team and our season’s sake, we’ve got to turn the corner and make sure we’re bringing that effort and intensity every night,” Dubinsky said.
The Sabres are trying to get out of their doldrums. They picked up some points recently by losing in overtime, but that’s not enough. They are two losses from matching the worst winless skid in franchise history.
“It’s better than getting blown out,” goalie Ryan Miller said of the Sabres, who have lost by more than two goals once during the skid. “We’re right there and it’s something to build off of.
“It’s frustrating any time you lose and when you put yourself in this kind of position in this league.”
Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves for his 20th win of the season, and former Sabres co-captain Chris Drury knocked off his old team the first chance he got since signing a five-year, US$35.25-million contract with the Rangers on July 1.
“It’s always a little weird the first time,” Drury said, “and surely it will be a little weirder up there. Once the game started, it was fine. We’re just trying to win hockey games.”
Jason Pominville scored and Miller stopped 33 shots. Buffalo got even in the second period, but fell behind soon after.
“We have battled for some points and we’re not that far out of it,” Miller said. “Our competition out there was fine … just things aren’t quite clicking.”
The Rangers were bolstered by the return of injured forwards Brendan Shanahan (hip) and Sean Avery (wrist).
A two-handed cross-check from behind by Shanahan that sent Clarke MacArthur into the goal post with 9.5 seconds remaining angered Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who already is fielding a lineup without Tim Connolly, Derek Roy and Maxim Afinogenov.
“There should probably be a suspension,” Ruff said. “That was a definite attempt to hurt somebody. It was careless, reckless. … He could have a broken neck, a broken shoulder, a broken back. He could have a number of things. If he isn’t seriously hurt, he’s lucky.”
Shanahan said he was trying to clear out MacArthur from in front as the Sabres pressed for the tying goal. MacArthur skated off and no penalty was called.
“It was harder than I would’ve wanted,” Shanahan said. “It certainly warranted a penalty. I’m glad the guy didn’t get hurt.
“I wanted to knock him down into the net, not into the post.”
The Rangers, whistled for four straight penalties in the second period, regained the lead at 9:42 when Prucha deflected Paul Mara’s shot past Miller to make it 2-1.
Prucha, who went 17 games without a goal before scoring twice at Toronto on Dec. 29, has four in eight contests.
Lundqvist was tested as the Rangers spent much of the second half of the period killing penalties. Marek Malik and Drury were sent off for holding eight seconds apart, leaving New York two men down for 1:52.
The Sabres recorded three shots during the advantage, but helped the Rangers by clearing the puck out of the offensive zone twice themselves. Blair Betts blocked two shots in the flurry.
“We don’t take a crazy many penalties, but when we start taking penalties, we take them in a short time,” Lundqvist said. “You definitely can lose like that.”
Buffalo had gotten even 2:43 into the second when Pominville scored his 11th goal at the end of a well-executed, tic-tac-toe play.
“We weren’t good enough. That’s the bottom line,” Pominville said.
Dubinsky’s fifth goal gave New York a 1-0 lead 6:15 in.
Notes: Campbell received just his second penalty of the season when he was sent off for slashing 2:43 into the second. … The Rangers recorded at least 40 shots in their three previous games. … New York is 30-13-8 with Avery in the lineup, since acquiring him last February, and 9-13-3 without him. … Buffalo has gone winless in 12 games twice, an 0-9-3 skid in 2002 and an 0-8-4 slide in 1991.