Because the present is rarely pretty in Sabreland – Friday night’s 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers being a perfect example – Buffalo fans are eager to look toward better days. A huge part of the future will be front and center Saturday.
The Sabres will introduce Evander Kane at a noon news conference in First Niagara Center. The team’s top left wing and highest-paid player is in Buffalo for the first time since being acquired from Winnipeg on Feb. 11.
“I definitely felt a very warm welcome from everybody,” Kane said during a second-intermission interview on WGR-AM 550. “From talking to management and a lot of the players, they’re looking to turn the page and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a great opportunity for me to come in and be part of this turnaround.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can to make this a better team.”
Kane is out until next season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder this month. He watched the loss to the Rangers, giving him an up-close look at the disparity between Buffalo and a Stanley Cup contender.
The Rangers outclassed the Sabres from the 15-second mark to the final buzzer in front of 19,070 fans, including a large contingent of vocal Blueshirts backers. New York outshot the Sabres, 43-25, including 16-6 in the opening period and 15-6 during the second.
“We played maybe 15 minutes out of the 60, to be honest with you,” Sabres center Torrey Mitchell said. “They were fast, they were jumping on us, and we didn’t have a response.”
New York improved to 5-0-1 in the last six games and 24-6-2 in the last 32. Buffalo fell to 17-38-4 this season.
New York pulled away with a two-goal second period. It started right away.
Wide-open Rick Nash took a cross-ice pass from Derick Brassard and put home his 37th goal with just 37 seconds gone. The winger has 32 even-strength goals compared to 77 for the entire Sabres team.
The Rangers again used their speed to make it 3-1 with 8:05 gone. Nash clanked his breakaway chance off the post, and the carom went directly to Mats Zuccarello in the slot. With Michal Neuvirth out of position after dealing with Nash, Zuccarello easily found an empty net to give New York some breathing room.
“Their skill set took over in that second period,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “There’s going to be some nights where the other team is going to be a little bit more highly skilled than us.”
The Rangers, who’d used Cam Talbot in net during all eight games with Henrik Lundqvist injured, elected to give Mackenzie Skapski his first career start. Buffalo gave the 20-year-old a rude welcome to the NHL.
Matt Moulson scored just 14 seconds into the game, Buffalo’s quickest goal since Tyler Ennis scored at the 10-second mark Nov. 13, 2013. Skapski had no chance with Moulson alone in front to deflect a pass from Mitchell for his 300th career point.
“That’s what we were saying before the game, just jump on this kid and get some shots to the net and put pressure on him,” Mitchell said. “But we just couldn’t generate anything.”
New York responded with eight of the next nine shots to tie the game. As Carl Hagelin sped down the ice, J.T. Miller skipped a pass by defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to set up his linemate for a breakaway. Hagelin easily beat Neuvirth through the pads with 5:51 off the clock.
The Rangers had a glorious opportunity to take a 2-1 lead, but Buffalo’s penalty killers successfully fought off a five-on-three that lasted 1:45. It was one of the team’s few highlights of the night.
The Sabres, who are in the midst of four games in six nights, will take Saturday off. They return to the ice Sunday when the Nashville Predators come to First Niagara Center.
“It was a tough game,” said Neuvirth, who has stopped 110 of 116 shots during his last three starts. “I’m happy with the way I played the last three games. It’s a great opportunity to get a start and show I can play.”