No matter how many losses the Buffalo Sabres have endured, no matter how many doubts have crept into the public consciousness, they are virtually guaranteed to play the second-place team of the Atlantic Division in the first round of the playoffs.
That alone should sound inviting, except for this: Jaromir Jagr plays for the New York Rangers. The best player in the world took over the third period Monday night, erasing a two-goal Buffalo advantage and leading the Rangers to a 5-4 shootout victory in Madison Square Garden.
"[Jagr is] the kind of player who can change a game by himself," Sabres right wing J.P. Dumont said.
It was frightening.
Here's the good news for the Sabres: The more Jagr accomplished against the Sabres, the better chance Buffalo had of avoiding him and playing Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. The Sabres are 3-0 against the Flyers this season with one meeting between the two teams awaiting them April 7 in HSBC Arena.
Petr Sykora beat Ryan Miller with a quick backhander for the lone shootout goal. Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov missed before Henrik Lundqvist stopped Derek Roy's backhander on the final attempt. The Sabres left with one point after they had lost five straight games in regulation.
The Sabres are 14-1-3 against Atlantic Division foes this season and 2-0-2 against the Rangers. Buffalo figured to have this one in its pocket after taking a 4-2 lead in the second period. The Sabres entered the game 28-1-2 when leading after 40 minutes, but the Rangers are a dangerous team so long as Jagr is on the ice.
Sure enough, Jagr set up Sykora with a perfect pass from the corner early in the third period to make it 4-3 and tied the game midway through the period when he wheeled from behind the net and beat Miller with a wrist shot. The score gave Jagr 52 goals and 109 points this season, tying franchise records in both categories.
"You give [Jagr] as many penalties as we gave him, he's going to excel," said Buffalo's Thomas Vanek, who was benched for much of the third period. "He's a special player, that's why he's leading the league and is the MVP, in my opinion."
Buffalo plays the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night in HSBC Arena before going on a three-game road trip that includes consecutive games against Toronto.
The Sabres weren't thinking about the standings Monday because they were too concerned with trying to turn a good shift into a good period into a good game. Oftentimes, the little things make a big difference, and the Sabres paid much closer attention to the details Monday than they had the previous week.
It still wasn't enough.
Briere had a goal and two assists to lead the Sabres, plus a key play in the second period. Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin was attempting to clear the zone when Briere knocked down the puck. It led to a tick-tack-toe passing play that ended with Jason Pominville's one-timer that gave Buffalo a 3-2 lead. Briere made it 4-2 when he scooped up Jay McKee's low slap shot and beat Kevin Weekes.
Drury and Dumont also scored for Buffalo.
"You don't like the outcome," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "I don't like the calls. I don't like the calls we didn't get."
Ruff was particularly incensed with a no-call on Martin Straka while Dumont had a breakaway in overtime.
"Those are tough," Ruff said. "Usually when a guy has a breakaway you get that call."
The Sabres together used their speed, hustled and achieved the results they had been seeking for more than a week. They chased backup Weekes after the second period but were unable to beat Lundqvist, who was supposed to have the night off.
Straka and Sandis Ozolinsh also scored for the Rangers. The Sabres killed off a five-on-three for 37 seconds in the third period and withstood Jagr conducting a personal shooting gallery in overtime.
Buffalo scored twice on the power play to end an 0-for-22 slump over the previous four games. Drury opened the scoring on the power play with about nine minutes left in the first period, but the Sabres gave up two goals in less than three minutes and fell behind, 2-1.
"We busted the bubble of not getting any points," McKee said. "It's a start."
>Rangers 5, Sabres 4 (SO)
Slap shots: Buffalo earns first point in six games. ... Sabres' power play gets untracked with two goals. ... Lundqvist is perfect in relief role for Rangers.
Fast fact: Jagr ties the Rangers' all-time single-season record with his 52nd goal.
Next game: Boston Bruins, 7 p.m. Wednesday in HSBC Arena.