Thomas Vanek’s third and fourth goals of the post-season bookended a three-goal outburst in the second period Wednesday night and the Sabres beat the New York Rangers 5-2 to take Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal.
Jason Pominville, Ales Kotalik and Drew Stafford also scored for the President’s Trophy winners, who self-admittedly weren’t running on all cylinders in their first-round series win over the New York Islanders.
They 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.
Perhaps that fuelled the Sabres, who 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.
Marcel Hossa and Brendan Shanahan countered for the Rangers, who lost for the first time in these playoffs.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped 32 shots while his counterpart Ryan Miller also made 32 saves for his fifth win in six starts this spring.
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.
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.
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 when the Sabres took 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.
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 made it 4-2 on a power-play at 19:12, while Stafford closed the scoring with an empty-netter 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 was cheering 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, who 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.