NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers will have home-ice advantage in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Rick Nash scored with 1:42 left in the third period to give the Rangers a 2-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday at Madison Square Garden. The win, coupled with the Philadelphia Flyers' 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, ensured New York will finish second in the Metropolitan Division.
"If we can get home ice, we'd prefer to get it," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "The higher seed you are, the better off you are."
New York dominated the second period but couldn't find much of a rhythm in the third, going the first 13:38 without a shot.
Martin St. Louis took a drop pass from Derek Stepan at the left wing and found Nash at the top of the right circle. Nash one-timed a shot past Hackett's outstretched glove for his team-leading 26th goal of the season. His nine game-winners are almost double that of Carl Hagelin, who ranks second on the Rangers with five.
"It showed a lot that we stuck with it, we showed some character," Nash said. "Good teams win those games."
New York's third-period struggles were a contrast to the second, when they had the first six shots and maintained possession in the Buffalo zone for long stretches. The Sabres were unable to mount much of an attack and failed to register a shot until 9:06. When they got that shot, they made it count.
Stafford opened the scoring when he tipped Mike Weber's slow wrist shot from the right point past Lundqvist. Stafford scored his 16th goal of the season in his return after missing four games with an undisclosed injury.
New York continued to apply pressure, outshooting Buffalo 17-1 through the first 18:15 of the period. The Rangers finally beat Hackett with 32 seconds remaining. Mats Zuccarello found Pouliot in stride at the left circle with a cross-ice backhand pass and the wing wristed a high shot to score.
"[Zuccarello] knows where everyone is. You've just got to find a spot somewhere and he's going to find you," Pouliot said. "Even when he's on his backhand coming in, he's always looking. That's a saucer pass cross-zone, it was unbelievable. At first, I thought maybe [shoot] glove side, but I was already on a bad angle to go across so I went short side."
Pouliot's 15th goal of the season extended his point streak to seven games, tying a career high he set in December. The primary assist extended Zuccarello's point streak to six games, continuing an impressive run that included the two connecting for the game-winning goal in a 4-1 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.
"[Zuccarello] and [Derick Brassard] do a lot of work and they spread the play out pretty good. I've just got to get somewhere and find a place," Pouliot said. "We should shoot a little bit more, but things are going pretty well."
The play started with an errant clearing attempt by Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder that was quickly sent the other way by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. Seconds later, the puck was behind Hackett after another costly turnover by the Sabres, who have lost nine of their past 10 and will finish the season with the NHL's worst record.
"Those are the things that have happened to us for the vast majority of the year. It's inconsistent," Buffalo coach Ted Nolan said. "We play well and then we don't play very well. We make good plays and then we turn over the puck."
The Rangers complete their regular season Saturday on the road against the Montreal Canadiens with their first-round opponent not yet determined. The Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets each have 91 points through 80 games competing for third place in the division.
The Rangers will look to continue a hot streak of 9-2-1 in the past 12 games.
"The last month-and-a-half we've been playing consistent. We go into every game expecting to win it," Staal said. "We have a good feeling going into the last game. Hopefully we can carry that momentum into the playoffs."