NEW YORK -- The Rangers were staring at their fourth loss in five games and third in a row, trailing the Buffalo Sabres by a goal early in the third period after Drew Stafford buried his second of the game on the power play.
Instead of finding themselves in the middle of their first prolonged slump since opening the season on a month-long road trip, the Rangers' big guns delivered in a big way.
Marian Gaborik scored his 29th of the season to tie the game, and Ryan Callahan netted his career-high 24th goal in overtime as the Rangers rallied for a 3-2 victory Saturday night that snapped the Sabres' three-game winning streak.
Callahan's 100th goal of his career was the result of some smart work by defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who drew the coverage to his right before flipping a pass back to Callahan. A fake dropped forward Patrick Kaleta to his knees, allowing Callahan to move around him and snap a shot past goaltender Ryan Miller with 2:01 left in overtime.
"I thought it was a really solid 60-minute game out of us," Callahan said. "In the last stretch, we've been a little inconsistent. We didn't get the wins we wanted to. I think it was important tonight for us to come out and have a good 60-minute game."
The win kept the Rangers seven points ahead of the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the East and nine points up on the Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Atlantic. The Rangers were 1-2-1 in their past four games -- hardly a reason to panic when you have a No. 1 or 2 seed virtually wrapped up barring a collapse.
But the words of Brad Richards spoke volumes about the importance of not losing to the Sabres.
"We wanted this badly," he said. "We've been a little bit all over the map the past two weeks. This time of year, the details have got to be there. We may not have the same desperation that a Buffalo does (six points out of eighth in the East), but we have to manufacture that by realizing that a bad week or two, and you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. We don't want to do that. We want to nip it and get back on track."
Stafford's power-play goal 44 seconds into the third period gave the Sabres a 2-1 lead, and with Miller looking rock-solid, except for a goal by Carl Hagelin that banked off his blocker and stick, it appeared the Rangers were about to enter the tailspin Richards wanted to avoid.
That's when Gaborik stepped up with a beauty of a goal about five minutes after Stafford put the Sabres on top. Gaborik used his speed to pull away from Kaleta at the blue line, took a perfect pass from defenseman Michael Del Zotto and beat Miller on a short breakaway to tie the game at 2-2.
"Gabby has been doing it for us all year," Callahan said. "It was a great pass by Del Zotto to see him cutting through like that. It's important to get that right away."
The elephant in the room after the game was the fact that trade deadline is less than 48 hours away, and the Rangers have been reported to have heavy interest in Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash. The Rangers rank 12th in the NHL in goals per game and succeed when they get contributions from everywhere, not just their stars.
On Saturday, that philosophy was on full display as defensemen picked up primary assists on all three goals.
"This time of year, goals are hard to come by and we need scoring help from everybody," McDonagh said. "Our big guys up front will do most of that work, but secondary scoring will help us."
With an assist on Hagelin's goal, Marc Staal has points in consecutive games and two goals and an assist in his last five contests. Staal played 22:36 on Saturday, the second-most ice time he's had since missing the first 36 games of the season with a concussion. He was engaged physically and nearly scored on a power play in the final minutes.
Staal saw time with his usual defense partner the past two seasons, Dan Girardi, and said he's feeling more comfortable than he has all season. Coach John Tortorella said he's seeing Staal's game heading in the right direction.
"He's playing better," Torotrella said. "I still think he's fighting the puck. We're going to try to keep him on the power play just to get him some puck possession. But his game is coming. It hasn't wavered as it had early on. It's slowly creeping up and getting to where we want to be. So that's a good sign for us."
The Sabres picked up a point in what is a wide-open chase for the eighth spot. They are six points behind Winnipeg, but have played two fewer games. The Sabres also have to leap over the Capitals and Leafs to get to the final playoff spot, so the point they left on the table Saturday could be a valuable one.
"We need those extra points," coach Lindy Ruff said. "We can't afford to take the penalty we took (in the final minutes of the third period), that may have cost us what would have been another valuable point. We could have won the game tonight."
The Rangers avoided their first three-game slide since going 0-1-2 in the first three games of the season and improved to 8-1-1 in the second game of back-to-backs this season. After letting a point slip away in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Islanders on Friday night, the Rangers came away with two valuable ones against the Sabres.
"When you lose two in row, you just want to get back on the horse and keep playing well," Hagelin said. "That was the problem the last two games -- we didn't play well enough. We weren't sloppy, and we were a hard team to play against tonight."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
1 - 0 BUF
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 BUF
Michael Del Zotto
2 - 2 Tie
3 - 2 NYR
Delaying Game-Puck over glass