From baffling to brilliant.
The Buffalo Sabres proved Monday night you can get a win by playing fewer than 20 minutes against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But play a real team, one with Stanley Cup aspirations, and anything less than full efficiency brings you to Tuesday night.
Some bad coverages and one leaky goal from Robin Lehner set the Sabres into a 3-0 hole early in the second period against the New York Rangers. And while they roared back a long way, they couldn’t quite complete the journey.
Goals by Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson got Buffalo close and a 19-4 advantage in shots on goal in the third period tells an accurate tale. But J.T. Miller found the empty net with a minute to go and the Rangers held on for a 4-2 win in First Niagara Center, their ninth straight over Buffalo.
“I thought really the fight in our club tonight was outstanding,” said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. “We brought it, brought it right throughout the lineup and pushed hard on this group. You saw it a number of different ways from a lot of different people.
“We gave a real good team everything they could handle. They put a lot of pucks off the glass and out tonight in the third period because of the way we were coming at them and how hard we were coming at them.”
The Sabres failed on a pair of power-play chances in that third, the last coming on Derek Stepan’s interference penalty with 4:57 to go. Backup Antti Raanta, playing in place of injured starter Henrik Lundqvist, was calm in his crease and stopped all 19 shots he faced over the final 20 minutes.
“We know we can play good when we play fast and put pucks behind them, and I think we did that for the most part of that period,” Larsson said. “We just need a little more traffic.”
Evander Kane had four shots on goal in the third period, while Jack Eichel, Matt Moulson and Rasmus Ristolainen had three apiece.
“They’re a quick team so if we wanted to have success we knew we were going to have to play as quick as we could,” Reinhart said. “ … We got more confident as the game went on. We started playing quicker and smarter at moving the puck and were able to create more chances.”
The Rangers were 59-1-1 when leading after two periods the last two seasons, and they had not lost back-to-back games since before Christmas. With New York coming off a home loss to the New York Islanders on Sunday and Buffalo on the second half of a back-to-back, the Sabres were really up against some huge odds.
But this club has proven before it’s undaunted. Reinhart’s 19th was a tap-in off a slick Eichel feed and Larsson one-timed home a Brian Gionta pass as the Sabres seemed to get momentum from Bylsma’s second-period yanking of Lehner.
Of course, it would be nice if the Sabres could get themselves going without such artificial means.
Tuesday marked the 24th time in 35 home games this season the Sabres didn’t score in the opening 20 minutes downtown. They remain last in the NHL in first-period goals at home with just 36, a paltry average of 1.03 per game.
When the Rangers scored twice in an 87-second span of the second period and Lehner was pulled, this one looked like it was headed for a TKO. Instead, the Rangers were forced to play rope-a-dope in the third period to stay three points ahead of the Islanders in the battle for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
“We’re a confident group in the fact we know we’re not out of a game,” said Gionta. “But when things aren’t going our way and we lose some momentum, we have to stop that quicker. Sometimes we give up things in bunches. There are five- or 10-minute spurts in games that hurt us and that’s something we have to find a way to correct.”