COLUMBUS, Ohio – With their astonishing second-half turnaround that propelled them into the post-season complete, the focus for the Buffalo Sabres is making sure franchise goalie Ryan Miller is rested enough to backstop a long playoff run.
Miller played the first half of the game, Paul Gaustad scored the winner late on a power play, and four other Buffalo players scored as the Sabres held on to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-4 on Saturday night in the season finale for both teams.
Buffalo enters the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres could have moved up to sixth, but Montreal beat Toronto 4-1.
It was the second straight game Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff has limited Miller to 30 minutes of action, easing him back into the lineup after he missed four games with an upper-body injury.
“Lindy wanted to make sure I could get tested then get me out of there to give me some more time to practice and prepare, and not risk anything,” said Miller, who allowed one goal on 21 shots. “I felt good. My awareness is better. That goal against I wanted to get to my net a little cleaner.”
Jhonas Enroth closed it out for the Sabres in a wild game.
“It was a game we wanted to make sure we got through and nobody got hurt,” Ruff said.
With the game tied 3-3, Drew Stafford and Gaustad, who also had an assist, scored on a five-minute major to former Buffalo captain Craig Rivet for cross-checking Tyler Ennis.
Jason Pominville added a goal and an assist, and Chris Butler and Ennis also scored for the Sabres, who went 28-11-6 since Jan. 1 to earn the most points in the East during that span.
“You obviously want to produce and help out,” said Brad Boyes, who tied a career high with three assists. “Now going into the playoffs hopefully it helps out.”
Kristian Huselius scored twice, and Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll also scored for Columbus, which finished the season with three regulation wins over its last 22 games. The Blue Jackets did put up the second-highest point total (81) in franchise history.
It seemed as if the streaking Sabres were going to pull away after they took a 3-1 lead with three consecutive scores in the second period, but the Blue Jackets rallied and Huselius tied it early in the third on a snapshot.
“We had lots of chances to get the lead before the penalty (to Rivet),” Columbus coach Scott Arniel said.
The game turned for good when Rivet cracked his former teammate and was ejected at 11:44.
Stafford scored a highlight-reel goal, spinning in front of Mason and flipping in his 31st of the season on the power play.
Gaustad followed a minute later with a redirection.
Huselius scored with the advantage with 23 seconds left.
The Blue Jackets struck first early in the second frame with Dorsett beating Miller on the wraparound.
“We were a little sloppy in the first period,” Ruff said. “I thought our game looked good after that.”
Buffalo responded three minutes later with Pominville blasting a one-timer from the high slot for his 22nd.
On a relentless forecheck all night, the Sabres stole the puck and scored again midway through the period before Butler fired a slap shot from the left circle past Mason.
Stafford forced another turnover leading to an easy goal for Ennis—his 20th—from in front at 15:12.
Boll cut the lead to 3-2 a minute later, stuffing home a rebound after a drive to the net by Matt Calvert.
“It was a good game, a good finish,” Buffalo defenceman Tyler Meyers said. “Good way to end the year for us to get a win on the road going into the first round.”
NOTES: Last season, Buffalo won the Northeast Division and was the East’s third seed. … The Blue Jackets were swept by the Red Wings in the first round of their only playoff appearance two seasons ago. … Columbus RW Rick Nash missed the final six games because of a back injury. … Sabres leading-scorer Thomas Vanek, who netted the overtime winner against Philadelphia on Friday night in a game that clinched a playoff berth, was a healthy scratch. … The announced crowd on Fan Appreciation Night was 18,717, the Blue Jackets’ sixth sellout of the season. … Buffalo won for the first time in Columbus in five games.