Johansen lifts Predators to 3-2 win over slumping SabresBuffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) and Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson (51) exchange words during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne prefers the excitement of a tightly contested race for the Central Division title during the final week of the season.
''I'm actually happy that all these games matter and all these games have a lot of meaning,'' Rinne said after the Predators stayed in the mix with a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night. ''We have a lot on the table, and that's the best part of it: It's going to prepare us for the playoffs.''
Rinne made 26 saves and Ryan Johansen scored 6:32 into the third period to help the Predators improve to 6-2-1 in their past nine.
With 96 points, Nashville moved two ahead of idle St. Louis and into a tie for the division lead with Winnipeg after the Jets lost 5-1 at Minnesota.
On the line is home-ice advantage, which goes to the first- and second-place teams when the playoffs open next week.
''Within this locker room, we have goals and things we're striving for, and it's about continuing to move in the right direction,'' Johansen said.
Johansen was in an ideal position at the right time in the third. Viktor Arvidsson's shot from the right side caromed off the end boards and directly to Johansen, who backhanded the puck into the open side.
P.K. Subban added a goal and an assist for Nashville, and Craig Smith also scored.
Jeff Skinner got his career-best 38th goal and Kyle Okposo also scored for Buffalo, which dropped to 0-7-1 in its past eight. The skid is the Sabres' longest since dropping 14 in a row from Dec. 29, 2014, to Jan. 30, 2015. Buffalo also dropped to 1-13-2 in its past 16.
Frustration is setting in for the Sabres, who complained they were on the wrong end of two key rulings.
Smith's game-opening goal was allowed to stand when replays were inconclusive in showing whether his stick was too high when deflecting in Subban's shot from the blue line.
Then there was a quick whistle that negated a goal for Buffalo's Conor Sheary in the second period. The play was stopped while a delayed penalty was called against Nashville even though no Predators player appeared to have control of the puck.
Coach Phil Housley repeatedly said the Sabres got robbed on both calls.
He said the Sabres watched replays that clearly showed the puck hitting Smith's stick. But he was more frustrated with Sheary's disallowed goal.
''The call that's sort of mind-boggling to me is the delayed penalty call,'' he said. ''The ref's sitting right in the corner. It's unfortunate.''
Carter Hutton finished with 32 saves.
''That's kind of the way it's been. When it's not going well, it's just not going well,'' Okposo said. ''But I liked the way that we responded.''
Buffalo eventually tied it at 2 when Skinner scored with 5 seconds left in the second. Skinner snapped an eight-game goal drought and scored for just the second time in his past 22.
Subban made an impressive play to put the Predators up 2-1 in the opening minute of the second period.
Sabres rookie defenseman Rasmus Dahlin skated through the neutral zone and attempted to flip the puck off the boards and into the Predators' zone. Subban, however, batted the puck out the air to set himself up for a breakaway up the right wing. He then blasted a shot from the circle that beat Hutton inside the far post.
Subban defended Dahlin's performance by noting he has made similar mistakes through his career.
''He's what, 18? I've made way worse turnovers,'' Subban said of Dahlin, the No. 1 overall selection in last year's draft. ''You can tell he's going to be a stud in this league for a long time.''
NOTES: Predators LW Austin Watson returned for the first time since he was suspended by the NHL more than two months ago for alcohol abuse. Watson missed 27 games with Nashville and had four goals in two games during a conditioning stint with AHL Milwaukee before being recalled Sunday. ... Sabres D Marco Scandella will miss the final week with a lower-body injury. ... Buffalo has gone 20 consecutive periods without holding a lead, dating to Sam Reinhart scoring the opening goal in a 7-4 loss at Montreal on March 23.
Predators: Host Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.
Sabres: Close home schedule against Ottawa Senators on Thursday.
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