NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers did just enough to dispatch of the lowly Buffalo Sabres. A few minutes later, a little bit of help handed them home-ice advantage to start the playoffs.
Rick Nash scored the winning goal with 1:42 left, on New York’s third shot of the third period, and the Rangers ensured they will begin the postseason at Madison Square Garden with a 2-1 victory over the NHL-worst Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
“The focus doesn’t change in the playoffs – the road or at home – but the experience changes,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who made 23 saves in the final home game of the regular season. “To play at home is just a great feeling, and to feel the atmosphere and the support, you get goose bumps.”
New York clinched second place in the Metropolitan Division when the Philadelphia Flyers lost at Tampa Bay later Thursday. The Rangers will face either the Flyers or Columbus in the opening round of the postseason.
“We knew that if we lost this one, potentially we could have slipped into a wild card spot if we don’t win our next one,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “It was a big two points for us against a team that doesn’t have a lot to play for.”
New York (45-31-5) will finish the regular season Saturday at Montreal.
The Rangers struggled throughout against the Sabres (21-50-9) and goalie Matt Hackett, who played in just his seventh NHL game of the season.
Drew Stafford gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead in the second, and Benoit Pouliot tied in in the final minute of the frame.
Nash fired a one-timer off a cross-zone feed from Martin St. Louis, and sent the puck past Hackett’s glove to break the 1-1 tie for his 26th goal. The Rangers then killed a penalty against Brian Boyle, the third Sabres power play of the third period.
Hackett made 28 saves for the Sabres, 2-15-1 in their last 18 games.
The Rangers dominated the Sabres 18-1 in shots in the second period, yet had only a 1-1 tie to show for it. Buffalo recorded the first five shots of the game, and New York didn’t record its first until Pouliot’s partial breakaway 7:30 in.
However, the Rangers had a 27-13 shots edge through 40 minutes.
“For some reason it took us a while to get our legs, and that’s where the goaltender needs to come up big,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “That’s what Hank did, permitted us to stay in the game, find a way to come back and win.”
The Sabres made the most of their only second-period shot and grabbed a 1-0 lead on it with 10:54 left in the period. Buffalo defenseman Mike Weber drifted backward with the puck from the right circle toward the blue line, and flipped a shot toward the Rangers net. Stafford, stationed in front of Lundqvist, got enough of his stick on it to deflect it into the net for his 16th goal.
New York did nothing with its two power plays in the first period or its next two in the second after a two-goal performance with the man advantage Tuesday against Carolina.
It took until there were only 30.4 seconds left in the middle frame to get even with the Sabres.
Hackett had been tough up until then, including shaking off a hard one-timer off the stick of Brad Richards that struck him flush in the forehead portion of his mask with 2:11 remaining in the period. After being briefly attended to on the ice by medical personnel, Hackett got up off his knees and stayed in the game.
“I felt relaxed. This was the best game I’ve played up here so the finish was really frustrating,” Hackett said. “We battled pretty hard and couldn’t find a way to get one more.”
Pouliot took a pass across the Sabres zone in the left circle and fired a drive past Hackett to tie it. It was Pouliot’s 15th goal of the season and third in five games.
NOTES: Lundqvist had a run of 26 minutes, 32 seconds between saves – spanning from the first period until the third. … Stafford and Sabres D Henrik Tallinder both returned to the lineup after missing four games each due to injury. Stafford has six goals and nine points in his past 13 games. … The Rangers didn’t record their first shot in the third period until Carl Hagelin’s attempt with 6:20 left. … New York didn’t take a penalty until the third period. In Tuesday’s win, the Rangers were unpenalized in a full game for the first time since Jan. 10, 2012, against Phoenix.