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Sweet Spot Hard-hitting Sabres connect when it counts

There was no reason to wonder why the Buffalo Sabres were losing.

As much as they exploited the New York Rangers just 48 hours earlier, the Sabres on Friday night failed to follow up with anything comparable for two periods in Game Two of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

The Sabres hit everything that moved, but they couldn't locate a stationary net. They had four shots in the first period, five in the second.

The Rangers, meanwhile, were firing pucks at will. They scored first and, when they took a lead into the third, hadn't trailed all night.

"The first two periods obviously weren't too good," Sabres co-captain Chris Drury said. "We didn't generate much, gave up way too many shots. The biggest thing going into the third was 'We still have a chance. It's only a one-goal game. We tie it up, who knows what happens?' "

Twenty-four seconds into the third period, the Sabres' relentless ways helped Drury tie the game. Then, with 9:49 to play, rookie Drew Stafford made a blind, between-the-legs pass to set up Thomas Vanek to decide a gritty 3-2 victory in HSBC Arena.

Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was sensational. He allowed the skaters to take chances and kept them within striking distance behind 31 saves, including a crucial save on a point-blank Jaromir Jagr backhander with 2:03 remaining. He made another stop in killing off a Rangers power play over the final 1:52.

"He certainly played very, very well," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "If he's not having an A-game maybe we do take this contest. We scored a couple of goals on him we thought exposed some parts of his game, but he made some terrific saves for them."

Brian Campbell scored the Sabres' other goal on a first-period power play to help the Sabres take a 2-0 lead in the bet-of-seven series, which heads to Madison Square Garden for Games Three and Four.

"They probably think it's over," Jagr said. "That's OK. The series can change with one play, one period. You just never know."

Miller insisted the Sabres wouldn't take the wounded Rangers lightly, especially not in Manhattan.

"We have a lot of respect for that team," Miller said. "We don't walk away from tonight. We feel good about the win, but we know we can be better. These are the types of games you have to win sometimes. But by no means is this series over."

Unable to give goalie Henrik Lundqvist much of a workout -- the Olympic gold medalist made only 15 saves -- the Sabres assailed every other player wearing a Rangers jersey.

Buffalo out-hit New York, 18-8, through two periods. Dainius Zubrus was an animal with eight of the hits himself. Zubrus sent Jagr to the dressing room with a center-ice hip check right before the second intermission. Jagr started the third period, but a wearisome memorandum had been delivered over and over.

The punishment played a part in Drury tying the score 24 seconds into the third period.

Renney said "the glaring play might have been elsewhere," but the Sabres were invigorated by the goal.

Rangers defenseman Marek Malik, with Sabres winger Ales Kotalik bearing down on him in the corner, unloaded the puck into open ice. Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman met the puck at the blue line and one-timed it. Drury, near the right post, redirected it for his fifth goal of the playoffs.

"We got some pressure down there and we forced Marek to throw it away," Kotalik said. "He threw it in the middle and right on the stick of Toni. That was good pressure by us, and it ends up being the tying goal. That's what we needed to get started."

The Sabres out-hit the Rangers for the game, 35-17. They also led in blocked shots, 16-6.

The Sabres almost got on the scoreboard first less than four minutes into the game. Zubrus made a sensational, no-look, backhand pass from below the goal line to Drury out front, but Lundqvist deflected the shot.

The Rangers seized momentum from there. They took the next seven shots in the next 6:20 and scored on the game's first power play, capitalizing on a Daniel Briere hold of winger Petr Prucha. Seventeen seconds into the penalty, Martin Straka blasted a one-timer from the point that found its way through traffic and behind Miller with 9:52 left in the first period.

Fifty seconds after Straka's goal and 19 seconds into a Prucha tripping penalty, Tim Connolly drew a pair of New York defenders out toward the point and slipped the puck to Campbell, giving him a wide-open look from the right circle.

Just before the first intermission, Buffalo defenseman Dmitri Kalinin's hip check wiped out Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival and a linesman in front of the bench. Rozsival returned.

The Sabres' shooting woes continued in the second period. They had a marvelous opportunity to take a lead after Rangers defenseman Fedor Tyutin bloodied Jason Pominville's mouth with a high stick. Through their four-minute power play, the Sabres were outshot, 3-0.

The Rangers grabbed another lead thanks to a power play with 1:20 remaining in the second period. Defenseman Paul Mara's snap shot from the left point sailed over Miller's shoulder.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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