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Sabres ride second-period blitz to Game 1 win

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi works to keep Buffalo's Thomas Vanek in check during Game 1 on Wednesday. Vanek tallied twice in a three-goal flurry late in the second period.
Al Trautwig, Dave Maloney Recap Game 1 WMP
Shanahan Discusses the Game 1 Loss WMP
Jagr on the Rangers' Run of Penalties WMP
Lundqvist on the Tough second Period WMP
Avery on Buffalo Goaltender Miller WMP
Girardi on Buffalo's Transition Game WMP
Buffalo's Briere on the Pumped-Up Crowd WMP
Buffalo's Roy on Facing Lundqvist WMP
Scoresheet | Stats | Faceoffs | Play-by-Play | Shift Chart

Coming into the first two games of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against Buffalo, the Rangers knew that leaving HSBC Arena with a split would give them the upper hand in the series heading back to Madison Square Garden for Game 3.

That split is still achievable, but the required victory will have to come in Friday's Game 2. On Wednesday night, the Rangers fell 5-2 in the opening game of the best-of-7 series, as they were hit with the full force of the Sabres team that had the NHL's best record in the 2006-07 regular season.

The Blueshirts held their own for the better part of two periods before the Sabres erupted for three goals in the last six minutes of the middle period. The teams then played evenly in the third, with each getting a pair of goals, but the second-period damage proved too much for the Rangers to overcome.

On Wednesday night, the Rangers saw first-hand just how explosive these Sabres can be. Even goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who played a strong game with 32 saves, couldn't be a difference-maker against a deep Buffalo attack that came well prepared for the Rangers' brand of defense-first hockey.

Even when things seemed to be going against them, the Buffalo players were patient enough to wait for the tide to turn their way. After failing on their first five power-play opportunities, the Sabres finally broke through on a picture-perfect man-advantage goal from Thomas Vanek, which ended up being the game's turning point even if it wasn't the game-winner. Because from that point on, Buffalo never looked back.

Vanek scored twice in the second period, and the Sabres also got goals from Ales Kotalik, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford in handing the Rangers what was only their fourth regulation-time defeat since Feb. 27.

Trailing 3-0 entering the third period, the Rangers used the final 20 minutes to send the message that they would do a better job skating with the Sabres in Game 2. While the Blueshirts got third-period goals from both Marcel Hossa and Brendan Shanahan, Buffalo picked up its two tallies in somewhat less impressive fashion -- with Pominville scoring on a controversial play that required a long video review, and Stafford hitting an empty net with just under 16 seconds remaining.

"You obviously don't want to spot a Presidents' Trophy-winning team a 3-0 lead going into the third period at home," said Shanahan. "I don't know if they outplayed us, but they outperformed us."

The loss was the Rangers' first of the 2007 playoffs, following a four-game sweep of Atlanta in the opening round. Their major downfall in Game 1 was a rash of penalties, as the Blueshirts allowed the Sabres eight power-play opportunities, even though only one led to a goal.

"When you've got too many people killing penalties and you spend too much time in the box, you can't develop any rhythm," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "... If you look at the types of penalties we took, they weren't the most intelligent penalties."

That lone power-play tally was costly. Vanek scored it with 5:41 left in the middle period, and two more quickly followed over the next 4:05. The big second-period outburst was reminiscent of the Rangers' visit to Buffalo back on Oct. 14, when a similar blitz by the home team -- late in the first period -- proved too much to overcome.

"Take away the last six minutes of the second period, and it was a good game for us," said Lundqvist. "We just have to bounce back here on Friday.

Buffalo's surge began after the Rangers were down to only five defensemen, because the Blueshirts had lost Michal Rozsival to a leg injury early in the second period. The injury was serious enough to keep Rozsival out of the remainder of the game, and his presence was certainly missed.

Lundqvist had been outstanding through the first two periods, but he came under heavy pressure from the Sabres four potent lines in the second. He had 25 saves of his 32 saves through 40 minutes, including 15 in the opening period, but as the defense grew tired in front of him, Lundqvist began seeing higher percentage shots, and the Sabres kept coming in waves.

Vanek scored his momentum-grabbing goal on a power play at 14:19. That goal came at the expense of two aspects of the Rangers game that had carried them through the first period -- Lundqvist's perfection in net and the outstanding penalty killing up to that point.

That game's first goal, on Buffalo's sixth power play opportunity, required a brilliant deflection from Vanek to solve Lundqvist. The initial shot was taken by defenseman Dmitri Kalinin from just above the right faceoff circle, and Vanek was crafty enough to get a stick on it and redirect it through Lundqvist's pads.

"He made a big-time tip and got a big-time goal," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said of Vanek.

Only two minutes later, Buffalo stretched the lead to 2-0 when the Sabres capitalized on a turnover in their own zone. Seconds after the Blueshirts won a faceoff in the right circle, just to the left of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, the puck came back to the right point, where Buffalo's Adam Mair jumped on it. He took it all the way to the Rangers blueline and fed a streaking Kotalik along the right boards. Kotalik moved down to the right circle and unleashed a high shot that beat Lundqvist at 16:19.

Vanek made it 3-0 just over two minutes after Kotalik scored. Working with the puck along the left boards, he cut through the faceoff circle and moved into the slot. From there, he unleashed a 24-foot wrister that sailed past Lundqvist at 18:24.

"You can't try to play (Buffalo) up and down," said Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr. "They are a skilled team, and they are too fast."

The Rangers worked hard to make a game of it in third period, as Hossa got the Blueshirts on the board -- and spoiled Buffalo goalie Miller's shutout bid -- with only 9:16 left to play. Miller would end up matching Lundqvist with 32 saves to earn No. 1 star of the game honors.

Taking a heads-up pass from linemate Michael Nylander, who was just a few feet to his left in the left circle, Hossa remained on the inside edge of the circle and ripped a shot that fooled Miller on the stick side as it sailed just inside the post at 10:44. Marek Malik also assisted on the goal, which was Hossa's second of the playoffs.

Suddenly, Buffalo's lead was down to two goals, and the Rangers seemed to have new life. After struggling to keep up with Buffalo's speed for the better part of the period, the Blueshirts followed the goal with increased pressure in the offensive zone and would end up outshooting Buffalo 11-9 in the third period.

Even before Hossa scored, the Rangers had a golden opportunity at 6:27 of the third, when both Daniel Briere (goaltender interference) and Dainius Zubrus (slashing) were called for penalties on the same play in the Rangers zone. The resulting 5-on-3 advantage was stymied when Miller made a sparkling glove save on Shanahan at 7:49.

Lundqvist also had a big third-period stop on a scoring attempt by Vanek, going for the hat trick at 12:18. Vanek took a pass in the left circle and tried to move in for a deke on Lundqvist, who shut down the angle and gave him noting to shoot at.

Buffalo made it a 4-1 game on a controversial goal that required a long video review before officials ultimately overturned the initial no-goal call. The on-ice official had ruled that Pominville's shot crossed the line after the net came off its moorings. Once the review process began, however, it also appeared that Pominville might have also batted Jochen Hecht's centering pass into the net with his hand – requiring officials in Toronto to review the video for both issues. When the ruling came back that the goal was good, the Sabres fans exploded with boisterous cheers.

The Rangers showed no quit, even after the Pominville goal, and they forced Miller to make two big saves in the closing four minutes. Shanahan eventually cut the lead to 4-2 when he scored off a pass from Martin Straka during a late power play with only 47.8 seconds remaining.

Up until the three-goal outburst late in the second, the Rangers more than held their own, particularly in killing five penalties, including a call against Malik early in the period. The Rangers killed off Malik's penalty without much adversity, but Lundqvist was later forced to make big saves against Zubrus at 4:31 and Kotalik at 5:11.

The Rangers didn't get their first power play until the middle period's 10:42 mark, when the No. 3 line of Matt Cullen, Petr Prucha and Ryan Callahan sustained some heavy pressure that resulted in Jaroslav Spacek going off for slashing at 10:42.

During that power play, Miller came up with a big save on Hossa who was set up just outside the crease on a drop pass from Jagr.

The first period featured 20 minutes of scoreless, intense action with 23 total shots on goal and a bevy of spectacular saves by Lundqvist. Facing the NHL's No. 1 team from the regular season, there was no doubt that the Rangers would need a strong performance from Lundqvist throughout this series, and they certainly got it from him in those opening 20 minutes.

Lundqvist made 15 first-period saves and proved utterly impenetrable in the period's latter stages with five of his stops coming in the final four minutes. The save parade began in earnest at the 16:19 mark when the Sabres' Tim Connolly drove down the left wing and made a flashy deke move once he reached the net. Lundqvist made the stunning save and then came back with a similar stop on Stafford two minutes later.

The Rangers goalie saved his best for last, denying Stafford at 18:57 and then kicking out a point-blank shot from Vanek with his right pad at 19:33. That play led to a holding penalty against Dan Girardi, but the Rangers penalty killers were up to the task.

Despite coming off a one-week rest, the Rangers were the sharper team in the game's early minutes and got the first scoring chance at 0:28. It was the Blueshirts top line sending a message that it would not be thrown off its game even by a hostile crowd that was still fired-up and waving towels after the national anthem concluded.

Hossa fed Jagr in the slot, and the Rangers captain bore down on Miller, forcing Buffalo's goalie to make a tough save from in tight at with less than 30 seconds gone in the game.

Buffalo got the game's first power-play opportunity, a delayed holding call against Sean Avery in the offensive zone at 4:14. The Sabres immediately applied pressure, and Lundvist stopped Buffalo captain Briere's redirection in front at 4:29. He came right back to deny defenseman Spacek on a blast from the right point at 4:42 and Brian Campbell from just inside the blueline at 4:47. He then stopped Spacek again from the point, as the Sabres showed a desire to fire pucks on net rather than set up in the zone when given a chance.

The Blueshirts had a the best first-period scoring opportunity at the 7:32 mark, when Cullen's deflection of a shot from the left point was initially stopped by Miller, but it trickled behind him onto the doorstep of the goal, where Prucha was swooping in from his right. Miller fell backward on the puck to cover it just before Prucha was able to get there.

After shutting down the first Sabres power play, Lundqvist made two more great saves at the 9:00 mark, denying Kotalik on back-to-back chances. The first save came on a slapshot at 8:58 and the second on a wrister at 9:06.

Another Buffalo power play would come at the 10:00 mark, following a goaltender interference call against Paul Mara. The Blueshirts easily killed off the penalty with Lundqvist forced to make only one tough save on Chris Drury just inside the right circle at 10:55.

The period's third Buffalo power play was negated only eight seconds after it started. With Cullen off for hooking, Spacek kneed Avery just inside the blue line as Avery was attempting to get into the neutral zone.

Ironically, the same game that included an injury to Rozsival featured defenseman Karel Rachunek's return to the lineup. Rachunek had missed the regular season's final 12 games and the entire first-round playoff series vs. Atlanta due to a knee injury suffered during a March 13 game against Ottawa. Rachunek replaced Thomas Pock, who had played all four games against Atlanta.

The game also marked the 2007 playoff debut of Ryan Hollweg, a healthy scratch in the first-round series against Atlanta. Hollweg replaced Colton Orr on the Blueshirts' fourth line and drew the Rangers' final penalty of the night for roughing at 16:50 of the third.
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