The Buffalo Sabres are going into the playoffs as the Northeast Division champions. The New York Rangers may not be going at all.
The Sabres wrapped up the Northeast title on Tuesday night with a 5-2 victory over New York, a game that dealt the Rangers' playoff hopes a severe blow. Rookie callup Tyler Ennis had a goal and set up two others as the Sabres officially eliminated Ottawa and assured themselves of no worse than the third seed in the East.
"After the past couple of years, to get back in and win the division is a big step for us," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, whose team missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
The loss ended a 5-0-1 streak that had moved the Rangers back into the playoff race -- they were actually tied for eighth before Philadelphia's 4-3 win over Detroit on Sunday. But Tuesday's defeat, combined with the Flyers' 2-0 win at Toronto, dropped the Rangers three points behind Boston, which fell to eighth place due to the Flyers' win.
The Rangers have to win at home against Toronto on Wednesday to have their home-and-home series against the Flyers this weekend mean anything.
Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller outplayed New York's Henrik Lundqvist, making 28 saves. Lundqvist stopped 13 of 16 shots before being lifted after Jochen Hecht's goal 5:17 into the second period put the Sabres ahead 3-2.
"Because I felt he needed to come out," was coach John Tortorella's response when asked why he lifted his star goaltender in a 3-2 game.
Lundqvist said he was surprised by the change. "It's up to John," he said. "I have to deal with it."
The Rangers got off to a fast start when Brandon Prust put in a shot from the slot off a broken play 6:57 into the game. Buffalo tied the game exactly three minutes later on a power-play goal by Derek Roy on a shot that beat Lundqvist high to the short side, then went ahead at 14:56 when Drew Stafford's wide-angled shot from below the right faceoff dot went through the five-hole on Lundqvist.
Rangers rookie PA Parenteau tied the game by nudging home a power-play goal at 18:18, capping an up-and-down first period that saw the teams combine for 25 shots -- 13 by New York.
Hecht put the Sabres ahead to stay and ended Lundqvist's night when he scored on a stoppable shot from the right circle. Miller preserved the lead at 9:16 with the save of the night, a diving stick-and-blocker stop on a wide-open blast by Marian Gaborik at the end of a 3-on-1 break.
Miller was rewarded with a lengthy standing ovation from the sellout crowd that turned out for the Sabres' last regular-season home game.
"That was one for the books," Ruff said. "That was an absolutely fabulous save. I think our guys built momentum off of that and we really went after them."
Defenseman Toni Lydman made it 4-2 at 13:22 when he came late on a 3-on-2 break following a turnover and a bad line change and beat replacement goaltender Alex Auld from the high slot.
The Rangers had problems all night coping with Buffalo's defense, which joined the play early and often.
“They made some good plays when they entered over the blue line and we had some problems coming back,” Lundqvist said. “They’re probably one of the better teams in the league to join the rush, and that’s how they beat us tonight.”
Tortorella said the save by Miller and the bad line change that led to the fourth goal were the turning points of the game.
“Gaby throws it back towards the short side and gets it away quick enough, but Miller came across hard and it’s just a great save,” he said. “It was an important part of the game, and a real turning point, because a few minutes later we just have an awful line change that costs us a goal.”
Ennis capped the scoring 2:06 into the third when he banged in a pass by Steve Montador, who had picked off a pass and carried down the right wing before backhanding a pass across the slot.
"It feels good," Miller said of the division title and a return to the playoffs. "It's something we were hoping to accomplish at the start of the season. It's one stop along the way."
The Rangers know they'll have to come up with a much better effort against the improved Leafs to keep their season alive.
"We didn't play well enough," Tortorella said. "We have another game tomorrow, and we need to be better from the goaltender on out."
Material from team media was used in this report