The New York Rangers are safe in the knowledge that they control their own fate in the race for a playoff spot.
The Buffalo Sabres can only wish for that kind of luxury.
A regulation win against the Sabres on Friday night would move the visiting Rangers a step closer to a postseason berth while eliminating Buffalo from contention.
New York rebounded from a lackluster 4-2 loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday with a 6-1 win over league-worst Florida on Thursday. Rick Nash had a goal and an assist in the first period for the Rangers (22-17-4), who moved to 6-2-1 in their last nine games and matched a season high in goals.
“It’s a huge game,” Nash said. “We’ve got to get a win (Friday) night. We’ll enjoy this for a couple of hours, then go back to work tomorrow morning.”
Henrik Lundqvist made 34 saves and reached 20 wins for the eighth straight season despite this lockout-shortened, 48-game slate. He has allowed two goals or fewer in 13 of his last 15 starts, posting a 1.68 goals-against average during that span.
The win kept the Rangers tied with Winnipeg for eighth in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of Buffalo. New York has a game in hand on both teams and can eliminate the Sabres with a win in regulation.
“It’s important. We don’t need help,” coach John Tortorella said of the standings. “I think it’s an opportunity for some guys to step up. You shouldn’t feel the pressure and shy away from it.
“That’s the way you need to take it as an individual and as a group.”
Center Derek Stepan had an assist Thursday, giving him five goals and six assists in his last nine games. He has a goal in both meetings against Buffalo this season.
This game is the third of seven straight for the Rangers against teams below them in the standings. That run started against the Flyers and ends with the regular-season finale April 27 versus New Jersey.
Although the Sabres (19-19-6) are chasing New York, they are enjoying one of their best stretches of the season. They’ve won three straight and six of eight despite a revamped roster due to trades and injuries.
The postseason appeared to be slipping further away with the Sabres trailing the Bruins by a goal in the final minute Wednesday before Cody Hodgson tipped in Thomas Vanek’s pass on a power play with 26.6 seconds left. Drew Stafford scored the only shootout goal to lift Buffalo to a 3-2 victory in the first sporting event in Boston since Monday’s marathon bombings.
“We have a chance to just write our own story,” said Ryan Miller who made 21 of his 41 saves in the third period and overtime. “We have to win our own hockey games and maybe get some help along the way. Tonight we helped ourselves a little bit and we still have games against teams ahead of us (in the standings).”
Hodgson’s score gave the Sabres multiple power-play goals in the same game for the first time since a season-opening win over Philadelphia on Jan. 20.
Miller is 8-2-3 with a 1.70 goals-against average in his last 13 starts against the Rangers. He stopped 26 shots in a 3-2 shootout loss at Madison Square Garden on March 3.
Jhonas Enroth was in net for Buffalo’s 3-1 home win March 12.