With Vitali Kravtsov finally activated and making his NHL debut Saturday night in Buffalo against the Sabres, and with Brett Howden off the COVID-19 list in New York and waiting to rejoin the team, the Rangers are whole and ready to make a run at a playoff spot.
This isn’t the way to do it, though.
With Boston having won earlier in the day, the Rangers needed to beat the Sabres on Saturday night to keep pace. But for the second straight game, they failed to hold a one-goal lead late in the third period, and this time they were punished for it.
Victor Olofsson tied the score with 3:41 left in regulation and Tage Thompson scored the only goal of the shootout to give the Sabres a stunning 3-2 win over the Rangers. After losing 18 straight games, Buffalo (8-23-6) has won two of three.
And so the Rangers (17-15-5), who got two goals from Artemi Panarin and carried a 2-1 lead into the third period, lost ground in the playoff chase. They fell four points behind Boston, which currently holds the fourth and final playoff spot in the East Division.
"Obviously, at this point in time in the season, you need to win,’’ coach David Quinn said. "You can’t get one point.’’
On Thursday, the Rangers also led 2-1 before Thompson scored with 3.6 seconds left in regulation to tie it. In that game, though, the Rangers managed to get the win when Mika Zibanejad scored late in overtime. This time they weren’t so fortunate.
"It’s kind of what we were doing early in the year,’’ said defenseman Adam Fox (two assists). "We just sit back a little too much and kind of change the way we play. I just think they were getting in the zone a little too easy and setting up. They had a few good looks, we got big saves and, you know, eventually teams are going to capitalize.’’
Buffalo goalie Linus Ullmark, who made 28 saves in regulation and overtime, did not allow a goal in the shootout. He made saves on Panarin and Zibanejad before Kaapo Kakko lost the puck as he tried to go to his backhand on the Rangers’ third shot.
Igor Shesterkin (27 saves), starting his third straight game and fifth in the last six for the Rangers, stopped Olofsson on the first shootout attempt, allowed a goal by Thompson and stopped Casey Mittelstadt on the third shot.
The Rangers took their first lead on Panarin’s first goal, which came at 10:22 of the first period with the Rangers on the power play.
With Buffalo’s Taylor Hall in the box for an interference penalty, Chris Kreider entered the Sabres’ zone and fired a long shot from the left wing that Ullmark kicked away with his left pad.
But Ullmark got tangled up with his own defenseman, Jacob Bryson, and with the goalie on his knees and unable to turn and face him, Panarin got to the rebound at the right- wing boards and whipped a quick shot that hit Ullmark in the back and deflected in.
Buffalo tied it at 1 on a goal by Mittelstadt, who took a pass from Hall on a two-on-one and wristed a shot past Shesterkin on the far side at 13:01.
Panarin’s second goal, a one-timer off a pass from Fox (who extended his point streak to 10 games) at 17:52 of the second period, put the Rangers ahead. Buffalo challenged the goal, alleging that the Rangers were offside. The challenge failed and the Sabres were assessed a delay-of-game penalty, but the Rangers could not convert on the power play.