The Rangers gave up way too much -- suffering both mental lapses and defensive breakdowns – and paid for it with a 4-1 loss to the surging Sabres.
Drew Stafford tallied twice and goaltender Ryan Miller made 26 saves as Buffalo tied 8th-place Washington with 82 points. The Sabres continued their stunning five-week run, improving to 12-2-3 since February 19 by capitalizing on a myriad of opportunities to prevent a series sweep by the Rangers.
Netminder Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t too happy with what happened.
“I think it’s pretty obvious the odd-man rushes killed us,” he said.
The first goal was a fluke – kicked in by the skate of Lundqvist’s own teammate, John Mitchell – but the second was not. Mitchell was again culpable, as his turnover in the offensive zone led to Stafford’s goal on the other end.
“The second goal really kills us,” coach John Tortorella said. “It really hurt us, because Miller was playing so well. To give that one up when we have full control of the puck and really maybe a chance to score another goal ourselves…I’m not going to blame it on desperation. I am a little frustrated with identifying our coverage off the rush.”
Mitchell was benched after Stafford’s goal at 13:43 of the second, but he wasn’t the only one responsible for the chances against that came too easy for the Sabres.
Tyler Ennis converted on a 3-on-1 rush late in the third and Stafford notched his second of the night 2:09 later for a 4-1 Sabres lead with less than four minutes to play.
“Going into the third, it felt like we had a chance to tie the game, we played pretty well, but just a couple turnovers that really cost us,” Lundqvist said.
“It’s tough when they can just walk in and pick their corners,” he continued. “Obviously I want to come up with a save there. Some nights I will; tonight I didn’t.”
Tortorella seemed reluctant to blame the loss on Buffalo’s urgency or desperation, but he admitted he was not pleased with the team’s back-checking effort.
“I think that’s come into our game the last couple of games. Maybe that effort on that fourth guy coming back is a problem,” he said before, quickly adding, “I know it is.”
While the Sabres made their push upward with the win, the Rangers find themselves teetering dangerously close to losing their lead in the standings. They remain one point ahead of the idle Penguins, but could lose control of the East this weekend, when Pittsburgh plays back-to-back games against Ottawa and New Jersey.
With the conclusion of their seven-game homestand, the Rangers now take off for a three-game tour that begins with Toronto on Saturday.
Should they fail to correct the errors of this latest loss, the Rangers may slip to the four seed with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
Said Brian Boyle, who tallied the Rangers lone goal:
“We have to be smarter and mentally sharper.”