BUFFALO -- At this time last season, the Rangers were on the ledge, at 34-32-10, in 10th place and desperately trying not to look down.

The view is much sweeter this season as April approaches.

"Last year, we needed help from other teams," Brian Boyle said. "All we need to do now is keep getting points. Have we played a bigger game this year? Not so far."

The Rangers are holding down seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 87 points. Buffalo could have tied them Tuesday night, but the Sabres lost in Toronto to the Leafs, 4-3.

Otherwise, the Rangers (8-1-1 in the last 10) will have a slim advantage going into Wednesday's clash with the Sabres at HSBC Arena, with both teams having played 76 games. Ninth-place Carolina, seven points behind the Blueshirts, faced Washington Tuesday night.

"It's a playoff-style game and we have to win it," said Ryan Callahan, who has 22 points in the last 19 games. "It's the most important game of the season."

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The Rangers are 2-1 against the Sabres this season, winning 6-3 here on opening night on the strength of Derek Stepan's hat trick in his NHL debut and again Nov. 11, when Artem Anisimov scored the tying goal and the overtime winner at Madison Square Garden. Stepan, who scored the lone goal against the Bruins on Saturday, will remain between Vinny Prospal and Marian Gaborik Wednesday, coach John Tortorella said.

The Sabres won, 3-2, at the Garden on March 1, the second time Ryan Miller and Henrik Lundqvist (with a 1.67 GAA in his last 10 starts) squared off.

Rookie winger Mats Zuccarello, a healthy scratch for the first time this season in Boston, could return. Tortorella said the diminutive winger didn't hit "a wall, just a little inconsistency . . . I don't think he's played poorly. I don't want to lose him because he's an offensive guy who can add some stuff on the power play. But I haven't made up my mind on the lineup."

Notes & quotes: In the three games with the Sabres, Brandon Dubinsky and Erik Christensen each have two goals . . . Tommy Grant, 24, a forward who had two assists in his pro debut with the AHL's Connecticut Whale on Sunday, was signed after an amateur tryout. Grant (6-2, 195) was 16-16-32 in 37 games with the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves of the WCHA.