Brad Richards, left, celebrates his goal with defenseman Dan Girardi,...

Brad Richards, left, celebrates his goal with defenseman Dan Girardi, right, during the third period of a game against the Buffalo Sabres. (Dec. 5, 2013) Credit: AP

BUFFALO -- In an imperfect game filled with icings and offsides, it took, as Henrik Lundqvist described it, "a perfect scenario for a goalie" to swing the momentum to the Rangers.

"You stop a breakaway and then we score on a power play. And it's a different game," said Lundqvist, who came up big in the final period of a tight contest Thursday night in which the Rangers beat the struggling Sabres, 3-1.

In the third period, with the Rangers ahead 1-0 on Rick Nash's first-period breakaway off a designed redirection from Derek Stepan, Lundqvist denied Cody Hodgson's breakaway with a poke check and Hodgson immediately was called for tripping at 7:11.

Enter Brad Richards and the Rangers' power play. At 8:29, Richards scored his eighth goal of the season, roofing a shot from the goal line to Ryan Miller's left on passes from Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.

"That second one felt like it was enough to keep the distance," said Lundqvist, who made 27 saves a day after he signed a seven-year, $59.5-million contract extension. "That was a big one."

Coach Alain Vigneault, who called out his leaders and veterans Tuesday, referred to the sequence as critical.

"There were pressure moments in the game and our big guys came up big," he said, adding that Lundqvist, whom he has critiqued in the past, "is an elite goaltender who comes up big at the right time."

The win, which came after a dreary first two periods, moved the Rangers (15-14) above .500 and set up a nine-game homestand in which they will try to string some points together.

"We waited a long time to kind of put the game away,'' said Marc Staal (five blocks), who also cited Lundqvist's "game-changing type of save" on Hodgson.

Nash scored a nifty goal at 17:47 of the first period after blowing past Tyler Myers down the left side, deking Miller right and flicking the puck back past his extended right pad. "It makes a huge difference when you score the first goal, especially on the road," Nash said.

But after Nash's goal, his fourth in the last five games and fifth overall, the Rangers couldn't separate themselves from the Sabres, who fell to 6-21-2, the worst record in the NHL.

"I don't think the level of play was too high. We get that lead and maybe played with it instead of trying to do more," said Richards, who won 9 of 12 faceoffs and assisted on Zuccarello's goal at 14:47 that made it 3-0. "Overall, we've got to do a better job."

While many Rangers struggled, including Benoit Pouliot, who sat for all but two minutes of the third period, one Ranger who stepped up was Ryan McDonagh, who had two assists to stretch his career-high points streak to five games.

And there was a relieved Lundqvist, who lost his shutout bid with 2:06 left on Tyler Ennis' goal. "It was an important game for me and for us," said Lundqvist, who lost in Boston last Friday, 3-2, and watched backup Cam Talbot get the next two starts.

"It [Wednesday] was weird because it was such a great day, an emotional day for me," he said, "but at the same time, I couldn't be super-happy because you want more wins."

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