BUFFALO — The New York Rangers thought they were ready to engage the Sabres in a battle of speed and wits.
But playing the Wile E. Coyote role to the Sabres’ swift Roadrunner was not in the plan.
The Rangers’ jaws were gaping in awe at some fast transition plays that turned into goals last night in a 5-2 series’ opening win at HSBC Arena. Jaromir Jagr didn’t have a stick of dynamite go off in his face, but broke his Acme stick trying to blast in the best chance the Rangers had during a full-term 5-on-3. Miscreant Sean Avery had a few boulders land on him, a minus-3, unable to rattle the Sabres, taking two penalties and denied along with the rest of his teammates most of the night by 32 Ryan Miller saves. With three goals in 4:05 late in the second period, the Sabres gave the Rangers a loud wakeup call: This will be a lot harder than their first-round sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers.
“That looked a lot like the way we played all year,” said relieved Sabres’ coach Lindy Ruff, whose own team fought nerves through the first round against the Islanders.
But the Sabres had to sweat out almost six power plays and big saves by Miller before Thomas Vanek’s deflection triggered the flood with a deflection past Henrik Lundqvist.
“We wanted to burst his bubble,” Ruff said of Lundqvist. “The more saves he makes, the better he feels.”
Ales Kotalik became the 11th different Sabre to score in these playoffs on a goal that materialized just seconds after Brendan Shanahan had a puck bounce through his skates. Vanek added another after easily winning a neutral zone battle for the puck.
“We want to stay away from the track meet,” rueful Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “The first 10 minutes we were fine (with Miller forced into a tough save on Marcel Hossa right off the faceoff). But the penalties stunted our growth. Our thought process went south after that. But we’ll batten down the hatches and respond accordingly (in Game 2).”
The Rangers lost defenceman Michal Rozsival with a leg injury in the first period, disrupting their flow. Rozsival is listed as day-to-day.
Jagr, whose 93 regular season points against Buffalo are the most by any National Hockey Leaguer, was limited to two shots in the game.
Hossa finally beat Miller with 9:16 to play, but Jason Pominville answered three minutes later. Shanahan scored in the last minute for his fourth in as many playoff games for the Rangers and Stafford had an empty-netter for Buffalo.
“They’re a very good team,” Renney stressed. “We continue to stress our defensive game. We’ve added some passion to our game and attention to detail.”
They will require a lot more tomorrow.