Rick Nash's goal with 1:42 to play in regulation lifted the Rangers to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the Buffalo Sabres in their final regular season home game of 2013-14 on Thursday night. The win, coupled with Philadelphia's 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, helped the Rangers clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division, and home-ice advanatge in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Rangers will open up the post-season next week at Madison Square Garden against either the Philadelphia Flyers or the Columbus Blue Jackets. There is still one game left on the Blueshirts' regular season schedule, on the road in Montreal against the Canadiens Saturday night, while both Philly and Columbus have two games remaining.
Thursday's contest was not a pretty one for the Blueshirts, but Nash sent the Fan Appreciation Night crowd home happy when he drilled a long right-wing slap shot past Sabres goalie Matt Hackett for what turned out to be the game-winner late in the third period. Marty St. Louis, coming off a three-assist effort Tuesday night, made a slick cross-ice feed to set up Nash's team-leading 26th goal of the season.
"Good teams win these games," explained Nash. "It seemed like (the Sabres) were all over the place, had some good legs, and they didn't give us much. It shows a lot that we stuck with it. We showed some character."
Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves for the Rangers, who finished 20-17-4 on home ice this season. Hackett impressed between the pipes for the Sabres on Thursday, stopping 28 of 30 shots.
"With a game like tonight I'm not going to did too deep in my brain to figure it out," explained head coach Alain Vigneault when it was all said and done. "We're going to take the two points and go home."
The Rangers did not generate much during a sleepy and scoreless first period; and then when they dominated the second period they very nearly reached the intermission trailing on the scoreboard. However that's where the red-hot Benoit Pouliot came through with less than a minute to play in the second, scoring to tie the game, 1-1.
Shortly after the Rangers failed on their fourth power play of the night, Mats Zuccarello feathered a perfect cross-ice pass from right to left, right on to the stick of Pouliot, who buried his 15th goal high into the cage past the reach of a lunging Hackett with just 30.4 seconds to play in the period. The goal came on the Rangers' 18th shot of the period.
Pouliot now has a career-best seven-game point-scoring streak in which he has scored three goals and added four assists. His 36 points on the season are a career-high. With the primary assist--his 40th of the season--Zuccarello now has points in six consecutive games.
"It's always nice when you score a goal, especially the way we played in the second we should have had a couple more, but then with 30 seconds left all of a sudden a goal goes in which was huge for us," explained Pouliot. "It gave us momentum going into the third, and then a huge goal by Nasher late in the third. I'm just happy we got that win."
Hackett, who entered play with one win and a 3.20 goals against average in six games with the Sabres this season, was unbeatable on the first 26 shots he faced until Pouliot's score--even taking one square in the face mask off the stick of Brad Richards two minutes before the Blueshirts finally broke through. Richards had a team-high four shots through two periods of play, and four other Rangers--including Pouliot--had three shots.
The Sabres managed only one shot on goal in that second period, yet it was enough for them to score the game's first goal. Defenseman Mike Weber floated a shot towards a crowd in front of Lundqvist. The puck was knocked down and in the ensuing scrum Drew Stafford pushed the disc over the goal line for his 16th goal of the season, putting Buffalo up 1-0 at 9:06 of the second period. The Sabres did record another shot the remainder of the period, after totaling 12 in the scoreless first.
"It happens," Lundqvist said of the close game despite the Rangers' dominance in the second period. "They had a little fluky play there on a deflection. Again, we didn't panic, we didn't come in here upset or anything. We are a confident team. We believe in each other and the system, and it paid off in the end."
Among the shots the Sabres produced in the first period was a 3-on-1 left wing chance for Chris Stewart, one that was denied by an aggressive Lundqvist who came out, cut down the angle, and made the big save. The scoring chance was set up when New York's Dan Girardi and Dominic Moore ran into one another and both fell down, thus creating the odd-man chance for Buffalo.
In the third period the Rangers had to kill off a pair of Sabre power plays before Nash eventually scored the game-winning goal. The two penalties--taken by Dom Moore and Pouliot at 10:13 and 15:10 respectively--were the first taken by the Blueshirts in the past two games.
"Obviously the focus doesn't change in the playoffs, the road or at home, but the experience changes," Lundqvist said of gaining home-ice advantage. "To play at home is just a great feeling, and to feel the atmosphere and the support, you get goose bumps. Obviously you want to play as many games as possible at home."