Only the Buffalo Sabres stand in the way of a satisfying 5-2 homestand Friday night for the Rangers, who will spend the next three games on the road in their quest to retain the top spot in the Eastern Conference as the regular season winds down.
But the Sabres will not roll over. In fact, they have been one of the hottest teams in the league and have plenty to gain themselves. The Sabres, vying for the final playoff berth in the East, have won two in a row in a 16-5-5 run. With 80 points, they likely will have to win at least five of their last eight games.
In a way, the Sabres are following the path taken by the Rangers in recent seasons. "Since I've been here," Marc Staal said, "it's been scratch and claw just to get in. It takes a lot out of the team when you're playing that desperate for that long. It's definitely nice to be able to clinch early . . . but at the same time, we have to keep looking to get better."
Along with Ryan Miller, 11-1-3 with 29 goals allowed in his past 15 games, some youngsters have helped the Sabres. Tyler Ennis has eight goals and 11 assists during the 26-game charge. Marcus Foligno, 20, the son of former Sabre Mike Foligno, has five goals and two assists in six games since his call-up from the AHL.
The Rangers (46-20-7) are 3-0 against the Sabres this season, but only the first game, a 4-1 win with Martin Biron in net Dec. 10 in Buffalo, wasn't close. The last two games have needed a shootout and overtime to decide matters.
Ryan Callahan, whose overtime winner clipped the Wings on Wednesday, also scored in the extra session in a 3-2 win at the Garden Feb. 22. A shootout decided the Feb. 1 game in Buffalo, 1-0, as both Miller and Henrik Lundqvist earned shutouts.
A point against the Sabres would put the Rangers at the 100-point mark, last reached in 2005-06. A win would give them 101 points, the most since the 112-point Stanley Cup season of 1993-94. With nine games to go, they lead the second-place Penguins by one point after Pittsburgh's 5-1 victory over Nashville Thursday night.
"We're starting to play how we were playing earlier in the year," said Callahan, whose 27 goals are a career high. "It's an important time of the year, and we've got to keep building."