David Quinn had been certain that when the Rangers walked out the door of their practice rink on Wednesday afternoon, they were a better team than when they had walked in it. His players had gone through a upbeat, up-tempo session on the ice, then what they later described as open and honest meetings about where they could be better - and whatever they accomplished together, Quinn was convinced that on Wednesday, at least, they'd had a good day.
"It carried over," the Head Coach of the Rangers said on Thursday night.
It not only carried over but it ran over the Buffalo Sabres, a team that had arrived at Madison Square Garden on Thursday carrying the NHL's best record at 8-1-1, the second-best start in their franchise's history. What they left with was a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Rangers, the kind of statement the Blueshirts had been looking for on their home ice, and one they received from up and down their lineup.
Ryan Strome scored twice - including his 200th NHL point - and four others found the back of the net, including Chris Kreider's first of the season and Tony DeAngelo's third in two games. Artemi Panarin and Brett Howden also scored while Adam Fox picked up his first NHL assist, and in all, 10 different Rangers made the scoresheet, half of them with multiple points, as the Blueshirts beat the Sabres for the 16th time in the teams' last 20 matchups.
The victory saddled the Sabres with just their second regulation loss of the young season, and goaltender Carter Hutton with his first defeat following a 6-0 start.
But to every Ranger in the home dressing room at the Garden, this performance was about so much more than the numbers could convey.
"Listen, you can look at the goals, and the power plays, and this or that or the nice plays," said Strome. "But it's the little things."
"We've been talking about it the last couple days, to take pride in the little things all over the ice," said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 31 saves for his second victory of the season and career win No. 451. "Everybody wants to make big plays and score and make a difference, we're trying really hard, but you need to start in the right end, and that's the little things - getting pucks out, take a hit, make that little play. And then we'll set it up for something big."
This was a point that had been driven home to every player during what Quinn termed "heated discussion" among teammates during that Wednesday practice day, at the end of which the Head Coach sounded confident notes that his team had made strides.
"I give our leaders a ton of credit. They took the bull by the horns," Quinn said on Thursday. "There certainly was some heated discussion just yesterday, and they all looked in the mirror and realized what we needed to do.
"But you can have all the meetings," Quinn said, "you've still got to apply it."
The Rangers did so from Thursday's drop of the puck, with the kind of puck support and physical play that their coaches had been preaching. Still, though, the game remained scoreless approaching the 12-minute mark until a cunning individual play by Panarin, the winger picking the pocket of 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin at the Buffalo line, then undressing Hutton at the net for his fifth goal in eight games as a Ranger.
Hutton finished with 18 saves on 24 shots. He had come into the game with a 4-1 record and a .953 save percentage against the Rangers.
"Where we were at mentally," Quinn said, "it was a big, big deal that we get that first goal."
They were off and running from there. Brendan Lemieux was a wrecking ball in setting up the second goal, separating Colin Miller from the puck before setting up Jesper Fast (two assists), who set up Howden, 2:51 after Panarin's goal. Strome's first, a textbook deflection of Brady Skjei's blue-line wrister, completed the first-period scoring with 37.8 seconds left, point No. 200 for Strome.
"There's no way we could come out in the first period and have a bad period; that would have been unacceptable," Strome said. "We talked about that, and we responded."
After that, critically, when Buffalo mounted any kind of push or threatened to claw back into the game, the Rangers always had an answer, and never let the Sabres - who had come from behind to beat San Jose two nights before - climb to within one. Quinn called that "a good sign."
Marco Scandella's unassisted tally 4:17 into the second was countered by DeAngelo's finish of a perfect cross from Pavel Buchnevich, at 13:20. And after Vladimir Sobotka scored to make it a 4-2 game entering the third, Buffalo had Jack Eichel on the ice and the Rangers hemmed in and tired until, at the end of a long defensive shift, Howden stole a puck and raced down ice for a 2-on-1 with Strome, who finished off his second of the night.
"I was sucking wind for a couple shifts after that, getting down the ice," Strome admitted. "I wanted to change, but on a 2-on-1, your eyes pop out of your head a little bit and you've got to take it."
The play all but put the game, and a much-needed win for the Rangers, to bed. They'll have two days to prepare for Game 4 of this season-long five-game homestand, on Sunday night against the Boston Bruins, but the meetings in the interim are sure to take on a different tenor.
"I think we took a big step forward tonight and we can be proud of our effort," Strome said.
"We talked about doing that, and we did it," said Lundqvist. "It was great to see."