BUFFALO – The New York Islanders needed two points in their season finale to give them the best chance to avoid facing the Eastern Conference-winning Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They had to settle for one.
Thomas Vanek scored in the first round of the shootout and Ryan Miller stopped all three shooters as the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Islanders 2-1 at First Niagara Center on Friday. Vanek snapped a high wrist shot past Evgeni Nabokov to open the tiebreaker; Miller ended it when he got enough of John Tavares' wrister to deflect it wide of the net after it went through his pads.
"We got the point. They won the skills competition," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "But I told them after the game that they deserve this opportunity to move forward now. The past is the past. When we get back, we'll get some rest here and move forward. It's an exciting time for the guys."
The single point gives the Islanders 55, temporarily moving them into sixth place in the Eastern Conference. But to end up any higher than eighth and avoid a first-round showdown with the Penguins, the Islanders have to hope the New York Rangers lose in regulation to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday or that the Ottawa Senators go pointless in games against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday and the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
The Islanders had been on 8-0-3 run but finished by going 0-1-2 this week.
"If we're going to play like this, I don't think we're going to have much chance in the playoffs," Nabokov said.
What has been causing their recent struggles is apparent to Nabokov.
"To me, it's obvious: The work ethic, the battle, playing on the edge. That's the difference," Nabokov said. "Teams are so evenly built right now so whoever has more edge, who goes to the net more, wins hockey games usually. We've been doing a great job of it lately, but not the last two games. We have to get back to practice and get ready for the first game."
The Sabres finished with a 21-21-6 record and missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
Miller made 30 saves in regulation and overtime in his 500th NHL game. Rookie Brian Flynn had the lone goal for Buffalo. Keith Aucoin scored New York's goal in the third period and Nabokov stopped 21 shots in his 41st start of the 48-game season.
The Sabres opened the scoring 3:29 into the second period on Flynn's sixth of the season. As Buffalo was making a line change, Vanek held the puck at the top of the left circle and sent it to Flynn as he came off the bench. Flynn's blast from the top of the left circle beat Nabokov on his stick side.
The Islanders tied the game 7:26 into the third with a little help from the end boards. Defenseman Andy MacDonald shot the puck down the ice in front of his own net and it banked off the end boards in the left corner in the Buffalo zone. Miller went out to play the puck, but it bounced straight out, past his reach and onto the stick of Aucoin, who put it though the sliding goaltender's legs for his sixth goal of the season.
"[Miller] kind of lunged and I had a five-hole wide open. I don't think he expected to come off the boards as hard as it did," Aucoin said. "Once it got by him, he was too far out of the net and couldn't recover. As soon as I saw the puck go by him, I knew I was going to have a good chance of scoring."
Nabokov had denied Flynn in the opening minutes of the game, diving across the crease and kicking his legs up in the air to stop a shot. He later stopped a Vanek breakaway early in the third.
The Islanders went on the power play with 3:35 left in overtime when Buffalo's Kevin Porter was sent off for hooking, but failed to convert.
Jochen Hecht, Buffalo's third shooter in the shootout, announced after the game that he would be retiring from the NHL. He and his family will move back to his native Germany where he plans to continue playing professionally. Hecht played 10 seasons with the Sabres.
Vanek, Buffalo's leading scorer with 41 points, extended his point streak to three games.
"During the game, I think I just played my game," Vanek said. "We wanted the win more for [Miller] than anything."
Miller kept the Sabres ahead when he stopped Michael Grabner on a breakaway with one minute remaining in the second period.
Miller became the 62nd goaltender in NHL history to reach the 500-game milestone. He is the 20th goaltender to play at least 500 games with the one team and the 12th to play his first 500 with the same team. Miller has played his entire eight-season career with the Sabres and has one year remaining on his contract. Before the game, Miller was chosen as the club's Most Valuable Player by his teammates.
He took some extra time on the ice as fans cheered his effort after the game.
"I just tried to have some fun with it, just remind Buffalo people that I appreciate everything they've done for me," Miller said. "It's just taking this as a milestone because we're not going to make the playoffs. I can just step out of myself and try and appreciate the moment just a little bit more. It was nice."