NEW YORK – Four days after blowing a three-goal lead in Pittsburgh, the Buffalo Sabres were faced with a similar challenge Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.
In a game the New York Rangers needed to win to clinch a playoff berth, the Sabres had built leads of 3-0 and 4-1 and knocked goaltender Henrik Lundqvist from the game in the process. But the Rangers scored twice and got a gift-wrapped 5-on-3 situation for two minutes with 7:48 to play.
Defensemen Mark Pysyk (interference) and Casey Nelson (hooking) were called for minor penalties on the same play and the Sabres were in a huge hole. The crowd howled, sensing the climax to a big comeback.
But it never happened. The Sabres killed off the penalties and survived the final five minutes to hold on for a 4-3 victory. It was a result that spoke volumes to their maturity in the second half of the season and the quick lessons they learned from Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Penguins.
“You bend, don’t break,” said defenseman Josh Gorges, who joined fellow blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen and David Legwand in killing the first 86 seconds of the 5-on-3. “You can have moments where you feel like they’re pressing on you and your back is against the wall but I thought even after they scored their third goal, we didn’t lose focus. We didn’t panic. Let’s keep pushing forward. That’s a good sign for our group.”
“It was awesome to see the guys kill that off and get the win,” added coach Dan Bylsma. “Our guys played poised and controlled and were able to close this one out. We talked a little bit about playing with a lead and finishing it out and I thought our guys did a good job of that.”
Chad Johnson made three saves on the penalty kill as part of his huge third period. Johnson stopped 33 of 36 shots on the night – including 15 of 16 in the third period.
“First and foremost to me in the whole game is coming up with a two-minute, 5-on-3 kill in a key situation of the game,” said Jack Eichel. “That’s probably the biggest momentum switch for us. We were able to kill that off, ‘Johnny’ made some saves and we kept it all together.”
The Sabres snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Rangers and won here for the first time since 2012 as they improved to 18-13-7 in the second half with three games left. O’Reilly scored a pair of first-period goals to get to 20 on the season, joining Eichel, Sam Reinhart and the injured Evander Kane in that club.
O’Reilly’s second goal, at 12:59 of the first period, was particularly highlight-worthy. Eichel saw a loose puck and space and accelerated past the Rangers’ defense into the New York zone. He worked around Derek Stepan and backhanded a nifty pass through the crease to O’Reilly, who banged the puck home past Lundquist from the right of the net just above the goal line.
“ ‘Eich’ made an unbelievable play to me back door and I had the whole net,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a pretty special play by him. I don’t know how he got it across. It’s unbelievable the way he can control the puck in so many different areas on his body to get it over like that. It’s a very unique skill most guys don’t have.”
It was fortuitous for the Sabres that O’Reilly is a left-handed shot skating down his off wing to the right of the net. Even though his skates were crossing the goal line and he appeared too deep to score, his stick remained in scoring range for Eichel to find it.
Eichel said he was expecting the Rangers defenseman to slide in front of him on the 2-on-1 and that’s exactly what happened, although the man back happened to be Stepan, a forward.
“I wanted to make a play quick,” Eichel said. “We knew they would slide on 2-on-1s so I tried to move the puck around him. (O’Reilly is) such a smart player. He stopped on the goal line so he was ready to put the puck home and he did.”
Eichel said he was thrilled to set up the 20th goal for O’Reilly, who was stuck on 17 for more than two months due to injury and 24 straight scoreless games until tallying in Pittsburgh.
“He went down with an injury and it’s tough to score 20 goals when you take 40 faceoffs every game, kill every penalty and do the all the things he does,” Eichel said. “It says a lot. What a 200-foot player he is. I’m not surprised at all. He’s been the backbone of our team all year.”
“We were frustrated with the call but we have to control what we can control and just go with what the call was,” O’Reilly said. “We have confidence in Johnson and he showed why. “From there on we kept pushing and doing the right things.”