Desperate to find a way to end their five-game losing streak, the Rangers did what they could to change things up Thursday as they prepared to host the red-hot Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden. They changed up the forward lines, and they tried having a morning skate.
Whatever they did, it worked.
The new-look second and third lines produced big time, with Ryan Strome getting his first two goals of the season and Brett Howden getting a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ 6-2 win.
Defenseman Tony DeAngelo scored his third goal in two games as the Rangers (3-4-1) ended their losing streak and cooled off the Sabres with their first win since Oct. 5.
“It’s just a good feeling to get a win, I think, especially on a homestand like this,’’ said Strome, who centered the second line, between wingers Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich. “It’s not fun getting booed off the ice like last game, and I think [this was] a good statement game . . . not only for our fans, but for this [locker] room, I think, you know, to prove it to ourselves, we’ve got it in us to beat the team that’s [8-1-1 coming in].’’
Rangers coach/mixologist David Quinn’s latest experiment was to split up his top two forwards, Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, bumping left wing Chris Kreider and Kaapo Kakko up to the first line to play with Zibanejad, and dropping Panarin down to the second line, with Strome and Buchnevich.
Panarin showed he can create his own offense without Zibanejad feeding him the puck. He scored the game’s first goal, unassisted, at 11:41 of the first period, poking the puck away from Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who had mishandled it just outside the Buffalo blue line, and then corralled it, pulled it past goalie Carter Hutton’s ill-advised poke check attempt, and slipped a backhander into the empty net for his fifth goal.
“It’s not only how special the finish was, it was the job he did,’’ Strome said, when asked how huge Panarin’s goal was for the Rangers. “He forechecked hard, had a good stick and, you know, when your leaders are doing the right things constantly on the ice — him, Mika, and a couple other guys — I mean we follow, and, you know, good team effort. It took everybody, and sometimes it’s a game like this that can get you out of a little bit of a rut and hopefully we can get going.’’
Howden, dropped to third-line center after four games up on the second line, made it 2-0 at 14:32 when he whacked in a pass from Jesper Fast at the left post — on his second attempt — for his second goal of the season. Strome made it 3-0 in the final minute of the period when he tipped in a left-point shot by Brady Skjei with 37.8 seconds left for his first goal. Skjei had two assists.
Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella capitalized on a turnover by Kakko to fire a shot through a screen to beat Henrik Lundqvist (31 saves) and make it 3-1 at 4:17, but after a tremendous shift by the Panarin line — in which Panarin hit the post on a one-timer — DeAngelo scored his fourth of the season to extend the Rangers’ lead to 4-1 at 13:20.
Buffalo’s Vladimir Sobotka scored his first goal of the season with 49 seconds left in the second period to pull the Sabres back to within 4-2. But in the third period, with the teams skating four-on-four, Howden and Strome combined on an insurance goal that relieved any nervous tension the Garden fans may have felt. The pair broke in on a two-on-one and Howden fed Strome for a backdoor tap-in to make it 5-2 at 7:57.
Kreider’s first goal of the season provided the final margin with 1:16 left.