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Callahan's pair leads Rangers past Sabres 5-3

by Brian Compton
NEW YORK -- Happy birthday, Ryan Callahan.

On the night the New York Rangers forward turned 24, he celebrated by scoring a pair of goals in his team's 5-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

It's been a breakout season for Callahan, a tremendous scorer at the junior and minor-league levels. But the Rangers' fourth-round pick in 2004 had just 8 goals in 52 games for the Blueshirts in 2007-08, mainly due to a knee injury.

Now that he's feeling 100 percent, Callahan is able to give 100 percent. His efforts on Saturday -- he scored on a breakaway in the second and helped the team avoid a potential disaster with an empty-net goal late in the third -- helped the Rangers win their third straight as they aim to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race. New York is now 8-2-2 in its last 12 games at MSG.

"It was a good way to spend my birthday," Callahan said with a smile as wide as the East River. "It was a good birthday gift at the end, the empty-netter. I thought as a team, we played well. It was tough coming off three days of practice."

Callahan's birthday party couldn't have come at a better time. While his team has won three in a row, so too have Pittsburgh and Carolina -- the two teams directly above New York in the Eastern Conference standings. The Rangers, who sit seventh in the East, are one point behind the Hurricanes and two in back of both the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, who meet Sunday (12:30 p.m. NBC).

"I didn't even know it was his birthday," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I coach them, I'm not too personally involved with them as far as birthdays. I didn't even know it was Ryan's birthday. It's a big two points for us. You're not going to play perfect games. We found a way to win a hockey game."

Markus Naslund had the lone goal of the first period. Just a few minutes after Patrick Lalime denied Lauri Korpikoski on a penalty shot, Naslund took a pass from Marc Staal and flipped a shot past Lalime at 9:01 for his 22nd goal of the season. Nik Antropov also picked up an assist, extending his points streak to four games.

Korpikoski was awarded a penalty shot 6:24 into the game after being hauled down from behind by Buffalo defenseman Jaroslav Spacek on a shorthanded breakaway. Korpikoski -- who has six goals in 58 games -- went to the forehand, but Lalime got his right pad on the wrist shot to keep the game scoreless.

"I'd take a penalty shot over anything," Tortorella said when asked if he would have preferred a two-minute power play. "You get a free chance at a quality scoring chance."

Chris Drury gave New York a 2-0 lead 2:25 into the second period. With the Blueshirts on a power play, the Rangers' captain redirected Paul Mara's shot from the point past Lalime for his 18th goal of the season and team-leading ninth power-play tally.

Daniel Paille gave the Sabres some life when he beat Henrik Lundqvist just 27 seconds later -- Maxim Afinogenov collected his 200th career assist on the tally -- but Callahan restored the Blueshirts' two goal lead when he converted on a breakaway opportunity at the 5:25 mark. It was his 18th goal of the season.

"I was a Sabres fan growing up, so my buddies give it to me any time we lose to these guys," said Callahan, a Rochester, N.Y. native. "They're right behind us in the playoff hunt, so it's nice to get two points against them."

Nikolai Zherdev gave the Rangers a three-goal lead with 2:34 left in the second period. The smooth skater carried the puck into the zone and fired a shot from a sharp angle that found its way past Lalime to make it 4-1. The goal was originally credited to Sean Avery, who was able to get to the net to create the needed distraction. It was Zherdev's 21st goal of the season.

New York's three-goal second period sparked Sabres coach Lindy Ruff to pull Lalime in favor of Mikael Tellqvist. Lalime, who has received the bulk of the playing time since Ryan Miller went down with an ankle injury against the Rangers a month ago, stopped just 15 of 19 shots.

"It's tough … Patty's battled through a lot, too," Ruff said of Lalime. "He's battling hard and we need some big saves and Mikael came in and looked pretty good for us in the third period. This is the time of year when a goaltender can steal you a game. I'll tell you, he is battling as hard as anyone."

Buffalo cut the deficit to two when Clarke MacArthur scored just 18 seconds after the opening faceoff for the third period. Paul Gaustad wristed a shot from the right circle that was denied by Lundqvist. But MacArthur was able to get the net, where he fired home the rebound to make it 4-2.

The Sabres then gave the Rangers and their fans a huge scare when Toni Lydman poked a loose puck past Lundqvist with 1:21 remaining. It was just his third goal of the season, but it got Buffalo within one. After the Sabres buzzed around in the Rangers zone, Callahan iced the game with his empty-net tally at 19:35.

The loss left Buffalo stuck in 10th place in the East, five points behind eighth-place Montreal with just 10 games remaining.
"It was a good way to spend my birthday. It was a good birthday gift at the end, the empty-netter. I thought as a team, we played well. It was tough coming off three days of practice." -- Rangers forward Ryan Callahan
"Nobody quit," Ruff said of his team. "Nobody's going to quit. I don't know if I've ever played with anyone who ever quit. I think it's one of the worst sayings in professional sports. The only trouble is we're running out of time now. We made a couple of mistakes. We're going to keep hammering away at it."

The same way Callahan is going to keep hammering away at his first 20-goal campaign in the NHL. He needs just one more in New York's final 10 games of the regular season.

"I wished for three, but I only got two," joked Callahan, who has notched a point in each of his last five games. "But I'll take that any day, definitely."

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