On Friday morning, the Buffalo Sabres would have been thrilled to know they would take three points on back-to-back nights against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. Late Saturday night, falling just short of a sweep against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers was a harsh fate.
Ryan Callahan scored with 2:01 left in overtime to give the Rangers a 3-2 win over the Sabres in Madison Square Garden in a game Buffalo led early in the third period.
After Andrej Sekera fired wide on a good chance of his own, Callahan recovered the puck, fed it to Ryan McDonagh and then took off. He got a return pass and worked the puck through Patrick Kaleta, who was back helping out after Sekera's rush, before beating Ryan Miller with a quick snap shot under the arm and into the top corner. It was the Rochester native's 100th career goal and 24th of the season.
The Sabres remain 11th in the East, six points behind eighth-place Winnipeg. They're 8-3-3 in their last 14 games but the loss ended their three-game winning streak and now they play four more a long way from home, starting Wednesday night in Anaheim.
The NHL trade deadline is Monday at 3 p.m. and the Sabres were once thought of as absolute sellers. After all, they were last in the East and 10 points out of the playoffs just nine days ago.
But which way do they go now? Most observers think the club still needs to make some moves to free salary cap space for the future but it's plausible management feels the Sabres have climbed back into the playoff race for keeps with 20 games to play.
It's an easier theory to push after Buffalo pulled off a nearly unimaginable sweep of the top two teams in the East.
"We're just trying to ignore the noise of what's going on," said winger Drew Stafford, who scored both Buffalo goals in his first multi-goal game of the season. "It can be a distraction. We're trying to keep that away and do our best on focusing on winning games. Certain guys don't have to keep being asked about it and answer any more questions and that helps."
The loss was a bitter one for Kaleta, who was minus-3 in the game. The Angola native was also victimized on the tying goal as he dropped coverage on Marion Gaborik and the Rangers' sniper cut in to beat Miller and tie the game 2-2 at 5:32 of the third.
"I lost the game for the team pretty much," said a disconsolate Kaleta. "Bad play. I know better. I take this loss and put it on my back."
"Patty has done a great job for us," countered coach Lindy Ruff. "The way he's played against the top lines has allowed us to get back in the hunt."
The Rangers are 3-0 against the Sabres this year, and Callahan has baffled Buffalo. His spectacular short-handed goal keyed a 4-1 win at First Niagara Center in December and he scored the shootout winner in a 1-0 game on Feb. 8.
Stafford opened the scoring at 13:29 of the first on a Tyler Ennis feed and took a Thomas Vanek pass to net a power-play goal at 44 seconds of the third that put Buffalo in front, 2-1. The Rangers had tied the game 1-1 at 7:38 of the second on Carl Hagelin's soft goal, a shot from behind the net that bounced in off Miller's blocker.
The Rangers tied it on Gaborik's team-high 29th of the season. Michael Del Zotto made the play with a neat feed in the Buffalo zone as Gaborik streaked ahead of Kaleta, got in alone and beat Miller with a backhand to the top corner. The goal came in his 700th career NHL game.
The Sabres then survived a late power play as Ennis went for interference at 16:35 for pushing McDonagh's stick away from the Rangers defenseman as he tried to retrieve it. Buffalo neatly killed most of the time, drawing boos from the crowd, until the Rangers got the puck in the zone and Marc Staal cranked a slapshot off the goalpost.
The Sabres had momentum after that kill with three points already put away on the weekend. They couldn't get the fourth.
"It makes you reasonably happy," Ruff said. "But we're in a situation where we need those extra points. We played those two teams hard. We could have won the game tonight. Obviously a couple mistakes that end up hurting us."