With eight games remaining, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff’s message to his team was simple: Win them all, and we’re in the playoffs.
Then they went out and knocked off the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.
Drew Stafford had two goals and an assist, linemate Tyler Ennis had a goal and two assists, and Marcus Foligno set up both of them to lead the surging Sabres to a 4-1 victory Friday night. Travis Turnbull scored his first NHL goal.
Buffalo moved up into an eighth-place tie in points with Washington, which lost in overtime to Winnipeg on Friday night, and is only two points behind seventh-place Ottawa with two weeks left.
”We’re just trying to ride this wave as long as we can,” Stafford said.
And what a ride it has been.
The Sabres were 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, 10 points out of a playoff spot, on Feb. 17. They are 12-2-4 since and are trying to become the second team to rally from such a deficit so late to get a postseason berth.
”We’ve put a lot of work into getting to the position where we’re at right now, but obviously we’re not there yet,” Stafford said. ”We’re not worried about the other teams around us. We know if we play well, take care of our business and win the games, we’ll be sitting just fine. Right now we haven’t accomplished anything.”
Ruff wasn’t too pleased with the line of Ennis, Stafford and Foligno during a win over Montreal on Wednesday, but he saw lots to like against the Rangers. If Buffalo finishes eighth, and the Rangers hold on for the top seed, these teams will meet in the first round of the playoffs.
The Sabres have seven games remaining.
”We’ve got to take care of what we’ve got to take care of,” Ruff said. ”It’s a good feeling when you can control your own destiny. I know it’s not probably realistic, but it still gives us the upper hand.”
New York had won the first three meetings this season – two after regulation – but Buffalo avoided a sweep on Friday.
”They had our number most of the year,” said Ryan Miller, who made 26 saves. ”It’s nice to just break through and show we can beat this team.
”But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll talk in a few weeks.”
Stafford had goals in the second and third periods and Ennis added one in the third. The Sabres took advantage of New York’s aggressiveness as it tried to rally, and caught the Rangers with odd-man rushes that produced a pair of goals within 2:09 that made a 2-1 game 4-1.
The Rangers missed a chance to tie St. Louis atop the overall NHL standings, and now are in a precarious position in the East. They still lead Pittsburgh by one point, but the Rangers have only eight games remaining, compared to nine for the surging Penguins.
”We just need to play how we need to play,” said Brian Boyle, who scored New York’s lone goal. ”We didn’t focus on (points) all year and we shouldn’t now. Just focus on being the best team we can.”
New York went 4-3 on its seven-game homestand and will play its next three on the road, starting Saturday at Toronto.
The Rangers nearly tied it multiple times in the third period, with its best chance coming with under 7 minutes remaining when Buffalo’s Christian Ehrhoff and Derek Roy laid out in the crease to assist Miller in keeping the puck out of the net. Just seconds later, Ennis fired a shot that deflected in off goalie Henrik Lundqvist to make it 3-1, and Stafford scored again at 16:09.
”It just reinforces how badly we want to make the playoffs,” Ennis said.
The Rangers thought they had tied it moments earlier, but Brandon Dubinsky’s goal was waved off because of a hand pass.
It was a rough second period for Rangers forward John Mitchell, who had a direct hand – and skate – in Buffalo’s two goals.
New York defenseman Stu Bickel landed a crushing hit on Turnbull behind the Rangers net, but the Sabres forward – playing in his second NHL game – was able to get his stick on the loose puck enough to nudge it in front with his backhand. Mitchell was moving toward the crease and kicked the puck in the net to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead 3:14 into the second.
Referee Kevin Pollock picked up the puck after it had been swept out of the net, tossed it to Buffalo defenseman Andrej Sekera, who flipped it to someone on the Sabres bench for safe keeping. Turnbull is the 29th player to score for the Sabres this season.
New York got even at 9:32 on Boyle’s seventh goal of the season, but another mistake by Mitchell led to another Sabres score.
Mitchell carried the puck inside the Buffalo zone and tried to skate deeper, when he got stripped of the puck by the backchecking Foligno. The quick Sabres suddenly had a 3-on-1 rush going the other way. Foligno sent a pass to Ennis, who then fed it to Stafford for a rising drive from the right side that sailed over Lundqvist’s shoulder with 6:17 left in the second.
Stafford has been a key cog in the Sabres’ recent surge toward a playoff spot. With his big performance Friday, he has four goals and eight assists in six games.
NOTES: The Rangers lost forward Mats Zuccarello in the first period when he was struck by a puck and broke his wrist. … Rangers D Tim Erixon earned his first NHL point in his 17th game – all the season – by assisting on Boyle’s goal. … Columbus leads the NHL with goals from 30 players this season. The Sabres have had goals from 30 players three times, the most recent during the 1991-92 season.