It was a great example of why they finished first overall in the NHL this season and it’s why the New York Rangers were kidding themselves if they thought beating the Atlanta Thrashers in the first round would compare in any way to what awaited them in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Our depth is our main strength,” third-line winger Thomas Vanek said after his two-goal effort in Game 1. “We don’t look to one of two guys to get it done.”
Vanek’s third and fourth of the post-season bookended a three-goal outburst in the second period Wednesday night and the Sabres rolled to a 5-2 victory to kick off the NHL’s second round.
Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville and Ales Kotalik also scored for the President’s Trophy winners, who admitted they weren’t running on all cylinders in their first-round series win over the eighth-seeded New York Islanders.
“I really felt a lot of pressure was taken away after getting by that first round,” said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. “That tonight looked a lot like the team that played this year.”
The Sabres brought it up a notch for the sixth-seeded Rangers, who had been picked by some hockey observers to upset the top-seeded Sabres after sweeping Atlanta in the first round.
“A much better effort overall,” said Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere. “There’s always room for improvement but it’s a start. It was definitely more of the Buffalo Sabres that we saw all year that showed up tonight.”
The Sabres showed off their four-line depth on attack and smothered the Rangers with constant pressure. The Rangers quickly discovered these weren’t the Thrashers, the unrelenting Sabres coming in waves, never taking a shift off.
Kotalik’s goal was the perfect example of Buffalo’s talent base, the fourth-line winger scoring when the Rangers had their second line on the ice.
“We don’t consider ourselves a fourth line,” said Kotalik. “You look at the guys playing on our line, Tim Connolly is one of the most skilled guys in the league when he’s healthy and Adam Mair can make great plays and has great energy. We’re just one line out of four on the team and happy to chip in tonight.”
Brendan Shanahan and Marcel Hossa scored for the Rangers, who lost for the first time in these playoffs and now face their first bout of adversity in the post-season.
“I think we’re the kind of team that responds well to challenges,” said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. “We have over the last month or so and I expect we’ll have a much better game Friday night.”
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and his counterpart Ryan Miller each made 32 saves. The Sabres went 1-for-8 on the power play while the Rangers were 1-for-5.
A furiously played first period didn’t produce any goals but plenty of entertainment, the Sabres in particular coming close to scoring with a 15-8 shots advantage. Centre Chris Drury nearly scored on a power play but was robbed by Lundqvist.
It was Miller’s time to shine in the second period, twice stopping Hossa from in-close on a Rangers power play midway through the frame.
Then came three goals in just over three minutes that broke open the game for good.
“We have a team that can smell blood sometimes,” said Miller.
Buffalo’s sixth power play produced the game’s first goal, Vanek’s beauty of a tip from a Dmitri Kalinin point shot beating Lundqvist five-hole at 14:19, blowing the roof off HSBC Arena as 18,690 fans shook their white pompons with pride.
“From there I think we just kept rolling,” said Vanek.
Exactly two minutes later Kotalik took a perfect pass at the Rangers blue-line from Adam Mair and rifled a wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle that beat a frozen Lundqvist top corner on the stick side.
Vanek, who watched from the press box for most of last year’s playoffs, made it 3-0 at 18:24, this time going top corner on the glove side from the slot after a great deke around Rangers defenceman Paul Mara.
The Rangers were handed a golden opportunity to get back into the game, the Sabres taking a pair of penalties 6:27 into the third period, giving New York a full two-minute, two-man advantage. But the Sabres stood firm, highlighted by Miller’s gorgeous glove save off a Shanahan blast.
“We did a great job killing that 5-on-3 – that could have turned the game around,” said Ruff.
Hossa ruined Miller’s shutout bid at 10:44, his one-timer from the faceoff dot beating the Sabres goalie on the glove side. But that would be as close as the Rangers got, Pominville re-establishing Buffalo’s three-goal lead at 13:47, a video review awarding him his third goal of the playoffs after he deflected in a pass before knocking the net out of place.
Shanahan banged home a rebound at 19:12 and Stafford completed the scoring in an empty net at 19:44.
Sean Avery’s pre-series comments of wanting to “hurt” the Sabres got the Rangers forward all the attention he wanted, booed every single time he touched the puck. The chants of “Avery, Avery” echoed throughout HSBC Arena after the Rangers winger took a foolish holding penalty just over four minutes into the game. The crowd cheered when Avery was sent sprawling on the ice later in the period when he was kneed by Buffalo defenceman Jaroslav Spacek. He was not injured on the play.
Avery took another holding penalty 4:23 into the third period, much to the delight of the crowd, which once again showered him with “Avery, Avery” chants.
Rangers defenceman Michal Rozsival sustained a leg injury late in the first period and didn’t return.
Notes: The Sabres are 1-13 all-time in best-of-seven series after dropping Game 1 . . . NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in attendance . . . The Rangers and Sabres haven’t met in the playoffs since 1978 . . . Buffalo swept the four-game series in the regular season, winning two in overtime and one in a shootout . . . Wingers Brad Isbister and Colton Orr as well as defencemen Thomas Pock were healthy scratches by the Rangers while forwards Daniel Paille and Andrew Peters and defenceman Nathan Paetsch were left behind by Buffalo . . . As is custom, the Sabres organization once again showed its class by singing both national anthems even though a Canadian team wasn’t playing.
Penalties – Avery NYR (holding) 4:14, Mara NYR (goaltender interference) 10:00, Cullen NYR (hooking) 14:16, Spacek Buf (kneeing) 14:25, Girardi NYR (holding) 19:36.
1. Buffalo, Vanek 3 (Kalinin, Roy) 14:19 (pp)
2. Buffalo, Kotalik 1 (Mair) 16:19
3. Buffalo, Vanek 4 (Tallinder, Numminen) 18:24
Penalties – Malik NYR (hand on puck) 2:19, Spacek Buf (slashing) 10:42, Straka NYR (hooking) 13:54.
4. N.Y. Rangers, Hossa 2 (Nylander, Malik) 10:44
5. Buffalo, Pominville 3 (Hecht, Briere) 13:47
6. N.Y. Rangers, Shanahan 4 (Nylander, Cullen) 19:12 (pp)
7. Buffalo, Stafford 2 (Zubrus, Lydman) 19:44 (en)
Penalties – Avery NYR (holding) 4:23, Briere Buf (goaltender interference), Zubrus Buf (slashing) 6:27, Hollweg NYR (roughing) 16:50, Kalinin Buf (hooking) 17:23.
Shots on goal by
N.Y. Rangers 8 15 11-34
Buffalo 15 13 9-37
Goal – N.Y. Rangers: Lundqvist (L,4-1); Buffalo: Miller (W,5-1).
Power plays (goals-chances) – N.Y. Rangers: 1-5; Buffalo: 1-8.
Referees – Marc Joannette, Don Koharski. Linesmen – Steve Miller, Jean Morin.
Attendance – 18,690 (18,690).