NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers were on the road to defeat Sunday -- perhaps the loss was still off in the distance, but it was only a few exits away -- before Buffalo Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta steered the game in an entirely different direction early in the third period.
Already down a man but with the Sabres ahead thanks to a Drew Stafford goal, Kaleta drove a defenseless Brad Richards into the boards. Kaleta was issued a major penalty along with a 10-minute and game misconduct for checking from behind, giving the Rangers a lengthy two-man advantage and five-minute power play that infused life into a lifeless performance.
Derek Stepan scored seven seconds after Kaleta was tossed, and Rick Nash put the Rangers ahead with a goal 43 seconds later. Nathan Gerbe would pull the Sabres back even with nine seconds left in the penalty, but the Rangers emerged with a 3-2 victory on the strength of shootout goals from Nash and Ryan Callahan.
Richards was down on the ice for about three minutes, writhing in pain after going headfirst into the left-wing boards after sliding a puck deeper into the Sabres zone. He skated to the locker room under his own power and returned during the five-minute power play, saying afterward he was stunned by the hit but had no ill effects from the collision with the boards.
Despite the win and feeling fortunate about surviving the hit mostly unscathed, it didn't lessen his ire for Kaleta.
"He sees my back and there's no need for it," Richards said. "I can sit here and say the same thing over and over again. There's nothing much I can do when your back's turned to a guy and you're trying to get a puck. That's not a hit that was ever in the game, I don't think. It's a little different than a head shot. It's just stupidity. If we're going to ram each other headfirst into the boards, it's a tough game to play."
The Sabres didn't make Kaleta available to the media after the game, but coach Ron Rolston spoke about a hit he said he didn't see.
"I didn't actually see the play. It happened pretty quick," Rolston said. "It was hard to tell how extreme it was. I have to take a look at it. We have to be smarter in that situation. Pat's a heart and soul guy for us. He's a competitor. He lays it on the line every game. He's a guy who I'm sure is disappointed about it."
Though Rolston, whose spot on the bench was directly across from the hit, said he didn't get a proper view of it, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal offered a candid opinion on the play.
"It (ticks) you off and gets you angry," Staal said. "It was a cheap hit. I played against him in juniors. He does a lot of those hits and cheap shots and a lot of times he doesn't back it up either. He either gets kicked out and you don't see him for a month or he sits on the bench for the rest of the game."
Stepan, who showed about as much emotion as he has in his time with the Rangers after tying the score 1-1, said it was important to get a goal with a two-man advantage but played down his reaction after finishing the pass from Nash.
"It's a big-time goal," Stepan said. "Any time you get a 5-on-3, you've got to make it count. Richie steps in there and takes a pretty big hit and you want to make sure you pop one in there. You never want to see a guy go down. Richie's as tough as nails."
The Sabres answered with Gerbe's shorthanded score at 8:19. It set the stage for a thrilling overtime in which Buffalo had more than its fair share of chances to come away with two points.
The Sabres started overtime with 1:26 of power-play time that became a brief 5-on-3 when Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi was called for boarding Tyler Ennis at the 54-second mark. The Sabres fired seven shots on goal during the first 2:54 of overtime, but Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist turned them all aside during his 28-save performance.
Lundqvist gave full credit to the Rangers' special teams, which generated two power-play goals in a game for the first time this season.
"They won us the game, for sure," Lundqvist said. "The power play stepped up even though we gave up one (shorthanded goal). They got us back in the game. And the way we killed their power play down the stretch was huge. These two points mean a lot to us right now. It feels great."
The victory was the Rangers' second straight after dropping four in a row. The Sabres, who had their three-game winning streak snapped, have earned points in four consecutive games under Rolston, who is 3-2-1 since taking over for Lindy Ruff on Feb. 20.
The Rangers sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers, who have played three more games than their Atlantic Division rival. The Rangers play host to the Flyers on Tuesday, then will play 10 of their final 27 games at MSG.
The Sabres are in 12th place, three points out of eighth. They'll travel to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday happy to get a point in New York but aware that a lack of discipline may have prevented them from picking up two.
"It was good. I got in the tunnel and heard a goal right away," Richards said of Stepan's answer after he exited. "We needed to get something going, so at least we got something out of it."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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