Sure, the games are meaningless in standings terms at this late stage, but that does not mean they can’t be fun. The Rangers had plenty of that on Saturday night against the hapless Sabres, earning a 5-1 victory at Madison Square Garden.
It was a game in which 22-year-old goalie Alexandar Georgiev made 21 saves in the first period and came within 4:34 of his first NHL shutout, 22-year-old defenseman Neal Pionk scored his first NHL goal, 24-year-old left wing Jimmy Vesey had a two-goal, three-point night and 24-year-old center Mika Zibanejad extended his goal-scoring streak to five.
The Rangers scored their first four goals on four consecutive shots on goal.
Not a bad night’s work for a team playing out the string while trying to retool the roster.
The only negative was failing to get Georgiev a shutout. It was lost on a power-play goal by Sam Reinhart. But close enough, after a 43-save effort from a guy who has been getting extended time down the stretch.
Did Georgiev let himself think about the shutout? “I try not to, but of course these thoughts creep into your mind, and I try to push them away,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s coming next time.”
The Rangers led 2-0 after a first period in which they were outshot 21-10. At one point, the shots were 14-3 for Buffalo.
Nevertheless, the Rangers broke through at 16:29 of the first. The top line of Chris Kreider, Zibanejad and Jesper Fast, which has been racking up the points as of late, made it happen again.
Zibanejad skated out from behind the Buffalo net and slid a backhand pass across the crease to Kreider, who was waiting alone on goalie Robin Lehner’s stick side and scored easily. Fast picked up a secondary assist.
At 18:02, Mats Zuccarello fed the puck toward the net from the blue line, where it found the stick of Vesey, whom the Sabres has left alone. He shoved it past a helpless Lehner for a 2-0 lead.
Pionk made it 3-0 at 3:59 of the second period when Vesey set him up with a nifty pass from the slot. He converted with a one-timer from the front edge of the left faceoff circle. “It’s hard to believe it at first; it’s just such a great feeling,” Pionk said, recalling the hugs of his teammates. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Said Vesey, “I know myself and a lot of guys were pumped for him.”
The Rangers made it 4-0 — and chased Lehner from the Buffalo net — with a power-play goal 8:45 into the second. Kreider fed Zibanejad from the left circle, and he scored from short range for his 27th goal.
The deluge continued with another power-play goal, this time from Vesey from the slot at 14:47 of the second past Linus Ullmark. That made it 5-0.
It was Vesey’s 17th goal, one more than he had last season. “I think both years I’ve had my ups and my downs,” he said, “but I consider myself a goal-scorer and it’s kind of been on a better rate lately.”
Afterward, Pionk wore the “Broadway Hat” that celebrates one player’s special night. He said he probably will give the puck he put in the net to his father to display in his office back home in Minnesota.
So, again: It was a meaningless goal in the standings, but not to Pionk, and not to his young Rangers friends.
Notes & quotes: Coach Alain Vigneault said the Rangers will continue to rotate alternate captains other than Marc Staal and Zuccarello. He said after five games of Fast and five games of Kreider, someone else will get a turn . . . MSG Networks’ Stan Fischler, who is retiring from television after this season, was honored with a video tribute during a TV timeout, then got a standing ovation when he was introduced live . . . The Rangers finished the season 3-0 against the Sabres, with all three games played in New York City. The Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Citi Field technically was a Sabres home game.