BUFFALO – The New York Rangers took a big step toward securing a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while Buffalo Sabres had their slim postseason hopes dashed by the time the first period ended Friday night.
Three late goals in the first period gave the Rangers a 3-0 lead. New York added four more in the second period and another in the third en route to an 8-4 victory at First Niagara Center.
Brad Richards recorded his first career hat trick in his 896th regular-season game, and five of his teammates found the back of the net as well. Thirteen Rangers, including goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, recorded points.
Carl Hagelin, Ryane Clowe, Anton Stralman, Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan also had goals. Richards, Derek Stepan, Clowe and Nash each had multi-point games. Richards, a 12-year NHL veteran, had 22 two-goal game but had never found the back of the net three times in one night until Friday.
Richards has 10 goals this season and four goals and an assist in his past two games.
"I don't even really want to talk about it. I don't want to jinx it," Richards said of his current run. "It's just, if it's back now, it's a great time to have it, let's put it that way."
The Rangers hold the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with 50 points. They have a two-point lead over the Winnipeg Jets and are one point behind the seventh-place New York Islanders. All three teams have four games remaining; the Islanders visit Winnipeg on Saturday.
The Rangers' first three goals – by Hagelin, Richards and Clowe – were scored in the final 1:18 of the first period. New York then added goals by Stralman and Richards on its first two shots of the second period.
The Rangers' first five goals happened in a span of 2:58 over two periods, the fastest five goals in team history. The previous franchise record was 3:22 in an 8-7 win against Edmonton at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 15, 1985.
"I just thought our start was better tonight. Forget about the goals in the first period. I thought we were on our toes," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we just looked quicker. We looked more alert, so it's promising."
The Sabres kept it interesting as Cody Hodgson and Nathan Gerbe scored six seconds apart in the second period to make it a 6-2 game. However, Callahan scored on a breakaway 1:02 after Gerbe's goal to give the Rangers a 7-2 lead. Drew Stafford then scored Buffalo's third goal with 3:41 remaining in the second. Seven goals in all were scored in the second period. The Rangers are 14-0-0 when leading after two periods this season.
"They scored two quick ones and I thought [Callahan's] goal – it may sound silly to you guys – I think that's an important goal, the seventh goal," Tortorella said.
Ryan Miller made 10 saves on 14 shots before being lifted in favor of Jhonas Enroth after New York's fourth goal. Enroth was beaten by the first shot he saw and ended up with 11 saves on 15 shots.
Lundqvist stopped 24 shots for New York.
Heading into the game, the Sabres knew that their slim playoff chances would disappear if they lost to the Rangers in regulation. With the loss, the Sabres now max out at 50 points with three games to play. Because the Rangers hold the tiebreaker, Buffalo will find itself watching the playoffs on TV for the second straight season.
"It's hard to put it on one game. We had so many opportunities earlier in the season to get points and we failed," Stafford said. "We didn't meet the expectations that we set for ourselves and it's just unfortunate. Now it's just about being professional and having some pride."
The Rangers had played the night before, defeating the Florida Panthers 6-1 on Thursday, and put up big offensive numbers for the second game in a row.
"It's two important wins for us. It's four points. This was a game in hand on a couple of teams. I think it distances us from a couple other teams," Tortorella said. "So we'll take it and get out of here and start playing another game against Jersey [on Sunday]."
With 1:18 remaining in the period, Hagelin avoided the reach of defenseman Mark Pysyk as he raced around the back of the net and threw the puck out in front. It deflected off the skate of Sabres defenseman Adam Pardy and through Miller.
Richards put up the Rangers' second goal with 20.1 seconds left. Holding the puck along the boards at the left circle in the Sabres zone, Richards waited for linemate Taylor Pyatt to tie up defenseman Christian Ehrhoff in front of the net. Richards put a low wrist shot on goal that deflected off of the heel of Ehrhoff's skate and beat Miller through the five-hole.
With time winding down in the period, Clowe shot the puck on net from center ice and then skated in as Miller attempted to play it to defenseman Andrej Sekera. But when Miller fanned on the pass, Clowe picked it up and quickly went forehand to backhand to score with 3.2 seconds remaining.
"I figured I'd go at him hard, go straight at him and see what happens because I knew there was no time left," Clowe said. "I've popped a few off the post and missed a few empty nets this year, so it's nice to get one back."
The Sabres faithful in attendance booed their team off the ice as the horn ended the first period.
New York came out for the second period and picked up right where it left off. On the Rangers' first shot of the period, Stralman scored on a wrister that beat Miller over his left shoulder. Ehrhoff may have been screening Miller as the shot left Stralman's stick.
Richards scored his second of the night 27 seconds later, knocking in a loose puck that found its way through Enroth's legs. Taylor Pyatt deflected a shot from the point by John Moore to get it past Enroth and Richards was down near the goal line to put it in and make it 5-0.
"There's just nothing to say besides the fact that we did find ourselves in a tough situation and we just couldn't find a way to stop the bleeding," Stafford said. "Unfortunately, it ended up the way it did. We clawed back. We did score goals. We were doing our best to try and come back, try and stick with it but at the same time they were scoring, so it's had to put into words, especially with the start that we had."
Nash scored with 12:55 left in the second on a give-and-go with Stepan as they came in over the Sabres' blue line. Nash has 19 goals this season and three points in his past two games.
Richards' third goal and the Rangers' eighth came with 7:28 remaining in the third period on a wrist shot from 43 feet out that deflected off Enroth's glove and in.
Callahan and Stepan each extended their point streaks to three games. They both have a goal and three assists in that span.
Pysyk scored Buffalo's fourth goal and the first of his career on a slap shot from the point with 39.8 seconds remaining in regulation.
New York continues its playoff push at home against the Devils on Sunday afternoon. The Rangers will continue to take it one game at a time.
"I think it's important we don't think too much about the standings, put too much thinking into what you can't control," Lundqvist said. "Just focus on what we can do right now and I think that's the key because the pressure's going to get more and more intense the closer we get to the end here."
The Sabres were supposed to head to Pittsburgh after the game for a matchup against the Penguins on Saturday, but that game has been rescheduled to Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center due to the police investigation in Boston. The Penguins were scheduled to play the Bruins on Friday, but that game at TD Garden has been moved to Saturday afternoon.