NEW YORK -- The Buffalo Sabres are outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, but if they continue to play like they did Friday night, it's only a matter time before they find themselves in a playoff position.
Drew Stafford had two goals and an assist, Ryan Miller made 26 saves and the Sabres whipped the New York Rangers 4-1 at Madison Square Garden to run their record to 17-5-5 over their last 27 games and 5-0-2 in their last seven.
Both the Washington Capitals, who blew a third-period lead and lost 4-3 in overtime to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night, and Sabres have 82 points with seven games remaining. The Capitals own the tiebreaker over the Sabres for eighth place in the East by virtue of their 35 regulation wins -- but thanks to a showdown between the teams in Washington on Tuesday, Buffalo controls its destiny.
The Sabres are also two points back of the Ottawa Senators, who were hammered by the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 on Friday, for seventh place in the East.
Confidence is brimming throughout the Sabres locker room, and it's translating into a sizzling finish to the regular season.
"If we can get one more team involved, it's just one extra spot up for grabs," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of the No. 7 seed suddenly seeming attainable. "It just creates the pressure. It gives us a shot of bringing them into the fold. You can't ask for anything more.
"We have to take care of what we have to take care of. I told the team this morning -- if we win out, we're win. That's a good feeling when you can control your own destiny. I know it's not probably realistic, but it still gives us the upper hand."
Tyler Ennis had a three-point night of his own with a goal and two assists. He said the Sabres aren't afraid of anyone, especially after beating the top the team of the Eastern Conference in its own building.
"I think we're just really confident," Ennis said. "We know what we have to do. It seems like Washington keeps winning, so we have to keep winning. But we're a confident bunch. Every game is a new test for us. We just have to focus on the next game. We're playing well, Millsy seems to be stopping everything and that's giving us a lot of confidence.
"It reinforces how bad we want to make the playoffs. The Rangers are the top team in the East, and they've played great hockey all year. We came out and played pretty sound in all areas, and I think it shows how bad we want to make the playoffs."
For the Rangers, it was a monumental step backward after three straight encouraging performances. Not only did they lose forward Mats Zuccarello to a broken left wrist midway through the first period, but their game was riddled with turnovers and odd-man rushes by the Sabres. John Mitchell was the culprit on two of Buffalo's goals, albeit one in an accidental fashion, and was glued to the bench after his turnover led to Stafford's game-winner later in the second period.
The Rangers still have a one-point lead on the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the East, but the Pens hold a game in hand.
"We're going to have to correct the mistakes in less than a day," said forward Brian Boyle, who scored the Rangers' lone goal and was referring to the team's next game Saturday night in Toronto. "We have a short time between now and when we fly up there. That's a pretty good team, they're playing good hockey, but we've got to be better. We know we can't play like that against any team in this League."
The Sabres broke through against goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with a fluky goal 3:14 into the second period. Rookie Travis Turnbull, playing in just his second NHL game, was mashed to the glass behind the Rangers net by defenseman Stu Bickel. Turnbull found the puck and blindly put it to the front of the net, where it ricocheted off an unsuspecting Mitchell and past Lundqvist to make it 1-0.
Turnbull, a linemate of Rangers forward Carl Hagelin when they were together at the University of Michigan and the son of former NHL player Perry Turnbull, wasn't the only rookie making a contribution Friday. Forward Marcus Foligno had two assists and has five goals and four4 assists in six games since he was recalled from the AHL on March 9.
"I don't care how you get' em. Ten years from now, he can tell everybody he got it on a breakaway," Ruff said of Turnbull's goal. "We've lost a couple bodies, but Marcus has stepped in and played really well for us. At the same time, Corey Tropp has been a hard worker and a battler and has made a lot of good plays. We've found some players that have made a difference for us down the stretch. The team right now believes it can win every night."
Boyle answered Turnbull's goal 6:18 later, but a Mitchell turnover at the offensive blue line led to Stafford's first goal of the night. Stafford took a pass Ennis and roofed a shot over Lundqvist's catching glove to make it 2-1 with 6:17 remaining in the second period.
Ennis and Stafford put the game away late in the third period with goals 2:09 apart, but not before Christian Ehrhoff kept the Sabres ahead by a goal with some heroics while defending his crease.
With Miller out challenging a shooter, the puck found its way to the stick of Rangers sniper Marian Gaborik at the right side of the net. Ehrhoff slid into the crease to block two tries by Gaborik, whose third attempt went wide.
Less than a minute later, after Miller turned aside a quality scoring chance by Brad Richards, Ennis finished a 2-on-1 with a wrist shot that squeezed between the blocker arm and body of Lundqvist.
"I thought the save of the night was Christian Ehrhoff's," said Miller, who is 12-1-4 in his last 17 games. "Back-door leg save."
The Sabres won't have much time to enjoy this victory -- they go home to host the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night in the 20th of their League-high 21 back-to-backs.
"That's all we're worrying about -- winning our own games," Stafford said. "We've put a lot of work to get into the position we're at now, but we're not done yet. We need to take care of our end of things. We're not worried about the other teams around us. We know if we play well, take care of our own business and win the games, get the two points, we'll be sitting just fine.
"Right now, we haven't accomplished anything. We were able to get ourselves in this position, but we still need to keep going."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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