As time ticked closer to the Buffalo Sabres' biggest game of the season (so far), it became increasingly clear they'd be without the face of the franchise. Ryan Miller was somewhere between banged-up and seriously injured, the stories went. Either way, the goaltender wouldn't be in net against the New York Rangers.
The mood in Sabreland, which was already sliding toward troubled after Tuesday's loss in Toronto, was turning sullen.
Jhonas Enroth, however, was excited.
"Yeah, of course," Enroth said Wednesday. "I was waiting for this game for two and a half weeks, since my last game. I was really excited."
The rookie goalie is one of the Sabres' top prospects for a reason. He's calm and laid-back, and the 22-year-old had already proved earlier in the season he can win a stressful game. He came through again, with plenty of help from teammates who rediscovered their discipline and took it to a higher level.
The Sabres smothered the Rangers, lightening the feel in HSBC Arena with a 1-0 victory. The win moved them past New York into seventh place in the Eastern Conference and pulled the Sabres within two points of sixth-place Montreal with five games left.
Enroth learned in the morning that Miller would be out with an upper-body injury that's considered day-to-day. He spent the night making 23 saves for his first shutout in 10 NHL appearances.
"I couldn't ask for better timing," said the Swedish netminder. "My parents [Erik and Eva] are actually here watching their first game over here, so it was a lot of fun and a very special night for me."
Without Miller, the Sabres worked diligently at keeping the Rangers away from the Buffalo net. Their diligence paid off.
The Rangers couldn't get near the Buffalo zone early with the Sabres taking 12 of the first 14 shots. After 40 minutes, the Sabres had a 26-14 shot edge. They finished with a 35-23 advantage.
"I have to thank all the guys for making this night very special for me because they battled really hard," Enroth said. "Very impressive."
The Rangers' lack of activity didn't mean Enroth had an easy night. The goalie, who hadn't started since March 13, had to be ready when New York approached because they successfully tested him. The rookie made back-to-back stops on Marian Gaborik and Vinny Prospal midway through the first. He stopped Prospal again in the second and withstood an extended Rangers rush midway through the middle period.
Enroth, who became the first NHL goalie to win his first three games via shootout, withstood the Rangers' third-period pressure. He received a partial standing ovation from the crowd of 18,690 when he gloved Bryan McCabe's shot to stop the Rangers' zone dominance.
Enroth improved to 6-2-1 this season and became the first goalie not named Miller to earn a shutout since Jocelyn Thibault blanked Boston in the 2007-08 season finale. He helped the Sabres improve to 5-1-1 in the past seven games and eased the sting of Tuesday's sloppy 4-3 loss in Toronto.
"When you lose a game at this time of year it seems disastrous, but we were 4-1-1 going into that, lost one in regulation and we shouldn't have lost the overtime game," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I was confident that we would play well in front of him. I was confident that he would play well."
The Sabres broke through against the game's marquee goaltender early in the second. Marc-Andre Gragnani broke up a short-handed rush by the Rangers to set up an odd-man opportunity the other way. Tim Connolly, normally a setup man, kept the outlet pass and unleashed a slap shot from the top of the circle. It was a rocket, and fueled the Sabres' offense.
"It's a great shot by him," said linemate Thomas Vanek. "We knew it was going to be a tight game, so anytime you can get the lead it's going to be good. It ended up being the game-winner."
Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier spent less than a minute giving an update on Miller prior to the game, and nearly all of his chat centered on generalities.
"He has an upper-body injury that we list currently day-to-day, not week-to-week. Right now we're on day-to-day," said Regier, who declined to say whether Miller underwent concussion testing.
Miller has taken two high shots this week, with New Jersey's Brian Rolston blasting him in the mask Saturday and Toronto's Dion Phaneuf catching Miller in the collarbone area Tuesday.
"That shot did play a role," Regier said of the Phaneuf slap shot. "That's the extent of my comments. It's upper body, and we'll leave it at that."
Regier said Miller may return for Saturday's game at Washington or Sunday's crucial matchup at ninth-place Carolina.
"It's a possibility," Regier said, "that's why I say day-to-day right now."
Sabres 1, Rangers 0
Slap shots: Sabres overcome loss of Miller to pull even with Rangers for seventh place in East. Upper-body injury sidelines Miller, who is day-to-day. Gragnani sets up Connolly goal for first career point.
Fast fact: Rookie Jhonas Enroth posted his first NHL shutout.
Next: Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. Saturday in Verizon Center.