In a spirited affair, one that reeked of a Sabres fanbase starved for a playoff berth for the first time in 12 seasons; the New York Rangers poured cold water on their historic hopes. Igor Shesterkin played hero tending the goal, and Artemi Panarin scored the game-winning goal in overtime, lifting Blueshirts to a hard-fought 2-1 victory on Saturday at Keybank Energy center.
The defeat kept Buffalo seven points back of the New York Islanders, who currently occupy the Eastern Conference’s second Wild Card spot, though they have three games in hand with 17 tilts remaining.
Regarding the Rangers, while their turnover issues subsided, the defensive lapses made what was ultimately their 19th comeback win of the season, good for fourth in the NHL, more complicated than it needed to be.
With his team needing a goal amid a sluggish middle frame worsened by Jeff Skinner’s rifle past Shesterkin for the game’s first strike, the Buffalo native came through. After dishing the puck off to K’Andre Miller deep in the defensive zone, Patrick Kane skated down the right side through the neutral zone and, following a return feed from Miller, sent the disc towards the net, which deflected off of Owen Power’s skate and through goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to tie it.
The tally marked Kane’s second consecutive game with a goal after going scoreless in his first two contests with New York. It was a bounce they desperately needed, as the Sabres outhustled, outmuscled, and outworked the Blueshirts up and down the ice throughout the second period, as the barrage reached the point where Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant dipped into his line blender.
Atop the first line remained Mika Zibanejad, but Artemi Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko now flanked him. In contrast, Kane skated alongside Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller after Kaapo Kakko was promoted to the second unit joining Chris Kreider and Vincent Trocheck.
Ironically, it was the fourth line that survived the shake-up as the trio of Tyer Motte, who returned from a two-game absence due to injury, Jimmy Vesey, and Barclay Goodrow stymied a lethal Buffalo attack led by stars Tage Thomson and Rasmus Dahlin, both at even strength and on the penalty kill.
“I don’t like to make line changes, but I’ll continue to do whatever is needed to get us going,” Gallant said. While the changes worked and the team settled the play down after being outshot 13-5 in the second, New York was continuously dominated in transition which is concerning going forward when succeeding in the playoffs requires you excelling at all facets of the game.
Still absent their most valuable defenseman Ryan Lindgren due to injury and New York’s 30th-ranked transition struggles, where Buffalo thrives, it spelled an arduous afternoon for Igor Shesterkin.
Regardless of how his teammates perform, the Rangers will go as far as the reigning Vezina trophy winner takes them. If he can turn in performances akin to this one, where he made 32 saves on 33 shots, 14 of which came in the third period, they’ll be poised for another deep playoff run.
Shesterkin steadied the Blueshirts through their putrid second stanza before stealing them a standings point when he stonewalled Dylan Cozens from the slot in the final minute of regulation to force overtime. The 27-year-old finished with a +1.62 Goals Saved Above Expected, stopped 11 of 12 High-Danger-Chances, and skated off the ice as the winning goaltender, allowing fewer than two tallies for the first time in 15 starts.
“Shesty was the key in the hockey game and the difference for us. He was outstanding tonight, and that’s a good sign”, Gallant said. Yet the coach couldn’t say the same for the defense, as he chastised them for forcing their netminder to bail them out. “Late in the period like that, in a 1-1 hockey game, to give up those chances is unacceptable for our group. Many guys should be thankful that Igor made those saves for them.”
While Gallant gave the team credit for playing better defensively than they did in their 4-3 shootout win at the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, where they survived a 23-turnover performance compared to six in Buffalo, there’s still room for improvement over the final 17 regular season games before playoff time. “I think we sacrificed too much offense. It wasn’t like that’s how we wanted to play.
Nobody told them to stop shooting pucks, getting pucks to the net, resetting pucks, and getting their chances. But sometimes, you get that mindset that you want to be a little bit better defensively and don’t push as much offensively. We know we won’t be successful doing that. It’s just a fine line.” Being effective on both sides of the puck is a balance the Rangers must find sooner rather than later, as their netminder can only stand on his head for so long before a couple eventually whiz by him.
A SATURDAY SPECIAL:
In playoff games, special teams’ goals come at a premium. They are often the differences in games, meaning not only the Rangers’ power play must pounce on their opportunities, but also their penalty kill to successfully defend. Saturday’s tilt presented a tough test, as the Sabres entered play carrying the league’s fourth-best power play, which took the ice with 6:58 remaining in regulation after Chris Kreider was penalized for interference.
What followed was a masterclass of communication, attrition, and execution by penalty killers Zibanejad, Braden Schneider, Motte, K’Andre Miller, Adam Fox, Vesey, and Goodrow, who finished their checks, blocked shots, got sticks in passing lanes and forced zone clearances.
Then in overtime, after possessing the puck for over a minute after being out-possed throughout regulation, an exasperated Dahlin, Buffalo’s leader in penalty minutes with 82, was boxed for hooking Zibanejad, allowing Rangers special teams coach Mike Kelly to whip out the whiteboard and draw up an overtime winner.
After sustaining play in the offensive zone, Fox moved in from the blue line, where his shot took a deflection right to the breadman on the left side, who didn’t miss the wide-open net in front of him and roofed home his 20th goal of the season sending the visiting fans into a frenzy.
MARV’S 3 STARS:
3 Patrick Kane(Game-tying goal)
2 Igor Shesterkin(32 saves on 33 shots, +1.62 Goals Saved Above Expected)
1 Artemi Panarin(Overtime winner)