NEW YORK -- They have weathered 82 games and two difficult playoff rounds and aren't yet sure if they are even the surviving team in the Northeast Division.
But the Buffalo Sabres at least own the Empire State title today, after defeating the New York Rangers in six games, vital to their hopes of staying fresh for what coach Lindy Ruff predicted should be "one hell of a series" against the Ottawa Senators.
The National Hockey League's top-scoring team, held to four goals in 12 periods by the Rangers in Games 3, 4 and 5, burst the dam yesterday in a 5-4 win. The next round likely won't begin until at least Thursday, with Ottawa eliminating New Jersey across the river on Saturday night.
After being stymied by Rangers goalie Henrik Lund-qvist, the Sabres started shooting high and magically produced four goals on 11 second-period shots, two by previously blanked sniper Jochen Hecht.
"Lundqvist has been so good taking the bottom of the net away, but (in this game) we got the shots up," Hecht said. "Then they had to open up (being behind on the board) and it made the game a lot more interesting for the fans, instead of low-scoring."
It became too riveting at times for Ruff, who saw leads of 2-1, 4-2 and 5-3 threatened in the course of the game. But he had the Rangers off balance, putting the line of Hecht, Chris Drury and Dainius Zubrus in the face of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka, even though opposite number Tom Renney had last change at home.
Jagr, who has resented Zubrus' intense coverage throughout the series, did have one goal, his third in as many MSG games, but he was not a factor on the road. Nylander opened and closed the scoring and Straka had three assists.
But that key Buffalo line had six points counting a Drury goal, while another three assists came from Daniel Briere. Dmitri Kalinin and Adam Mair had the other Buffalo goals.
"Hopefully our confidence will grow," Briere said of a second series in which Buffalo did not play the complete game that marked its regular-season championship. "The puck didn't seem to want to go in for Jochen. Hopefully now that changes."
As well as shooting higher, the Sabres dug two pucks out from behind the Rangers net and on Hecht's first goal, their top defence pair Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder both absorbed heavy hits to spring the 3-on-2.
The combined nine goals tied this year's NHL playoff high and two of those games involved the Senators. Between Ottawa and Buffalo, they chewed up all three New York City-area teams, which likely will cost the league some U.S. viewers in the conference final.
"Lindy said to me post-game: 'You scared the hell out of us,' " said Renney, whose team made it one round further than last season. "Their chances are good with four teams left. They came out hard in the second, we committed our third guy and they were able to do what they love -- counterattack.
"You're disappointed for guys such as Jagr and Brendan Shanahan (both well in their 30s), because you don't know how much more opportunities they have in front of them. We came pretty close, but as the saying goes, that only counts in hand grenades."
Lundqvist and Buffalo's Ryan Miller came into the game separated by .002 in save percentage, but Miller's 32 stops easily eclipsed Lundqvist's second-period meltdown.