'Almost perfect' doesn't cut it for Rangers
Despite disrupting the high-powered Sabres attack for most of two periods -- blocking shots, killing penalties and limiting Buffalo to a paltry nine shots on goal -- the Rangers allowed the Sabres to score two unanswered goals in the third period to take Friday's Game 2 by a 3-2 count.
If the score was close, the impact on the series and the psyches of the respective teams could not have been more significant.
The Sabres now head to New York for Sunday's Game 3 with a 2-0 series lead and the firm, if quiet, belief that regardless of what the Rangers do, it may not be enough to stop them.
And the Rangers will have to quickly separate themselves from the notion that they simply may not have an answer for this Sabres team after playing what netminder Henrik Lundqvist called an "almost perfect" game.
"They're a good team. Even though we have a lot of puck [possession], they don't panic. They stay patient," said Lundqvist, who allowed three goals on just 18 shots. "We've just got to keep doing what we've been doing. I mean, we played great [Friday]. Take away our mistakes out there, two that cost us two goals, and we're going to win this."
In spite of his calm demeanor, it was Lundqvist's reaction immediately after the game that paints a more striking picture of the Rangers' situation two games into this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
As he entered the dressing room, the affable Swede slashed an eight-inch gash in the walling above the entrance to the Rangers' dressing room with his goal stick.
"They probably think it's over. That's OK," said Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, who assisted on a Martin Straka power-play goal 10:08 into the first period that gave the Rangers their first lead of the series at 1-0.
"A series can change with one play, with one period. You never know," he said.
Jagr might well have been talking about this game as much as his team's chances of reversing the flow of this suddenly one-sided series.
After the teams traded first-period power-play goals, the Rangers scored another on the man advantage, this one by defenseman Paul Mara, with just 1:20 left in the second period. It was the kind of goal in a kind of game that had the feel of a winner.
But in the Sabres dressing room between periods, Tim Connolly told his teammates the Sabres were one of the NHL's top teams at coming from behind (they actually rallied from a two-goal deficit a team-record 10 times during the regular season) and the one-goal deficit was nothing.
• Sean Avery was the subject of a big hit by Dainius Zubrus in the third period. Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr, who was nearly blind-sided by a Zubrus hit late in the second, said the hit on Avery was obviously too high. The super pest (Avery) had an even rating through 17:41 of ice time. He had three shots on net and did not take a penalty.
• Late in the second period, the Rangers got another scare when Jagr was clipped by Zubrus just outside the Sabres blue line. Jagr finished out the shift and then went directly to the dressing room. He, too, returned to action at the start of the next period and later said he didn't want to talk about the hit.
• Michal Rozsival returned to the lineup after missing part of Game 1 with a leg injury. In the waning seconds of the first period, he was rocked by a Dmitri Kalinin hip check and could be seen hobbling down the hallway to the Rangers dressing room. He returned for the balance of the game and played 24:58, but he is clearly playing with some pain.
• When the Sabres were held scoreless in the second period, it marked only the fifth time in 21 postseason periods they had not scored.
• Daniel Briere saw his playoff point streak come to an end at six games.
-- Scott Burnside
"This team's got a lot of confidence in the locker room when you're down 2-1," said Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell.
That confidence was rewarded just 24 seconds into the third period, when an errant Marek Malik clearing pass was intercepted at the Rangers blue line by Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman. His slap shot was neatly deflected past Lundqvist by co-captain Chris Drury.
The goal seemed to even what had been a lopsided playing surface for most of the night. Drury acknowledged after that perhaps the easy time Buffalo had in Game 1 affected its play in Game 2. Certainly, the Rangers came out with renewed vigor after being thumped 5-2 in the opening game Wednesday.
They stayed out of the penalty box, giving the Sabres only four man-advantage opportunities compared to the eight in Game 1. When they found themselves killing off a four-minute penalty for Fedor Tyutin's high-sticking infraction in the second, the Rangers had the best of the scoring chances with Brendan Shanahan just missing high on a 2-on-1.
Through two periods the Rangers outshot the Sabres 22-9.
But after the Drury goal, the Sabres' attack suddenly became more dangerous, their cycling of the puck in the offensive zone more successful. It was this dynamic that led to the winning goal as the Rangers' fourth line got caught on a long shift and the Sabres managed to change manpower while maintaining control of the puck.
The result was a deft no-look pass between the legs by rookie Drew Stafford to Thomas Vanek, who roofed the winning goal at the 10:11 mark. Stafford was playing with his third set of linemates of the evening as coach Lindy Ruff tried to shake his team loose of the Rangers' tight checking. Most significant, in terms of ice time, was Ruff's movement of shifty Maxim Afinogenov to the team's fourth line.
"You don't like giving up a goal in the last minute of a period and you don't like giving up a goal in the first minute of a period and they were able to do that," Shanahan said. "You'd like to say there were a lot of good things about the game, and obviously there were a lot of good things. But until we get a win, there's really nothing to be happy about."
"The one thing I do know," added Rangers coach Tom Renney, "is that this isn't over and I know our guys feel the same way. So, we'll go back and give 'er bear."
In the moments after the game, the Sabres were quick to employ the old misdirection ploy by praising their opponents while insisting they had accomplished nothing despite their 2-0 series lead.
When told of Jagr's comments, suggesting the Sabres might already be looking beyond this series, Sabres netminder Ryan Miller bristled.
"They've been trying to put thoughts in our head for the past three or four days," said Miller, who was once again terrific in keeping the Sabres in the game during the first 40 minutes. "By no means is this series over. I don't think the Rangers need to speak for us."
The lanky netminder from East Lansing, Mich., also made a number of key saves in the waning moments of the game, when co-captain Daniel Briere was sent off for cross-checking with 1:54 left in the game. He finished with 31 stops on 33 shots.
Drury acknowledged that winning a game despite playing well for only one period is encouraging in some respects. "But, you know, it's living dangerously."
Of course, living dangerously is something the Rangers suddenly know a lot about, as well.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.