NEW YORK (AP)—The pre-series problem for the New York Rangers was slowing down Buffalo’s high-powered goal scorers, not finding offense of their own.
But through three games, the Rangers have played well defensively. If they can solve Sabres goalie Ryan Miller consistently, a series many thought would end quickly could go the distance.
New York beat Buffalo on Sunday for the first time in seven games this season with a 2-1 victory in double overtime. That cut the Rangers’ deficit to 2-1 in the series and put them in position to go back to Buffalo all square if they knock off the Sabres again at home on Tuesday night.
Since Buffalo’s 5-2 win in the series opener, in which the Sabres scored three times in a four-minute stretch of the second period and added an empty-netter, New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist has allowed only four goals in eight periods.
The only problem is, Miller has been touched for only six in the series.
“He was just himself,” captain Jaromir Jagr said Monday after the Rangers held an optional practice. “We know how good he is. Hopefully he’s going to get tired, but I don’t know when. We’re just waiting for that to happen.”
The Sabres scored an NHL-best 308 goals this season and were the only team to have four guys with at least 30. Their depth and speed pose the biggest challenges for opponents because not only can Buffalo roll four lines, it can get goals from anywhere.
Just as the Rangers are trying to beat Miller, the Sabres are struggling against Lundqvist.
“He covers everything really, really well,” forward Daniel Briere said. “He’s very quick and his reflexes are with the best in the league. But I think for us, we have to raise the puck.”
Maxim Afinogenov—one of seven Sabres to reach the 20-goal mark—was dropped to the fourth unit and played alongside Tim Connolly, also an offensive playmaker who has seen limited ice time because he missed all but the final two games of the season while recovering from post-concussion syndrome.
Miller made 44 saves in the losing effort, his second in eight postseason games this season. He had won five straight games since a loss in Game 2 of the first round against the Islanders.
With Miller’s 1.98 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, the Rangers have more than just defense to worry about. New York scored 17 goals in its first-round sweep of Atlanta, including a 7-0 win in Game 3.
“When you play better defense it’s tougher to score,” Jagr said. “You don’t play up-and-down hockey. You can’t, because they would kill you. With that skill they’ve got, you cannot really open it up unless you’re losing a lot.”
New York coach Tom Renney instilled a defense-first mentality that focuses on accountability for everyone on the ice. He disagrees with his captain that being attentive to keeping pucks out of the Rangers net limits scoring chances at the other end.
His theory is that a strong defense is a key ingredient to producing a prolific offense. So far, the Rangers are waiting for the second part of the payoff.
“We feel good about the fact that we’ve played this team very, very well outside of the first game. And even then we kind of beat ourselves there,” Renney said. “Not to suggest they don’t deserve any credit here but we do, too.
“We’ll play five periods of hockey every night as long as we win. If we’re doing that and the scores are low, obviously we’re playing a more complete game.”
The Rangers were buoyed after their first win over the Sabres. Buffalo won all four games in the regular season, three decided after regulation.
Renney said the 0-6 mark didn’t bother him on its own since he was pleased his players have kept the Sabres in check.
“Regardless of how you feel about how you’re playing, you’re still saying you’re 0-6 against a team,” forward Brendan Shanahan said. “It was important to get that first win.”
The Sabres regulars stayed off the Madison Square Garden ice Monday. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff wants more force than flash from his team going forward.
“We’re kind of a wild horse, and it’s been part of our strength,” Ruff said. “I don’t want to take all that away, but it’s tightening down in a couple areas. We know we have to be better, give up a little here, take a little bit more there. That’s what playoffs are all about.
“It’s out-of-character. It isn’t necessarily we need our best players to be our best. We need surprises, too. We need ugly goals to come from around the paint.”