When teams stop the Rangers from running, they find themselves with nowhere to go.
The Blueshirts couldn’t overcome an action-draining effort at the hands of the Sabres, and their late surge was just not enough in a 3-2 loss at the Garden on Friday night.
Despite scoring two goals in the final three minutes of regulation to turn a 3-0 deficit into a 3-2 nail-biter, the Rangers just didn’t have enough to tie it.
It’s becoming the formula to beat the Rangers — clog the neutral zone, don’t let their skill see any open ice and wait them out. As games get tighter in the lead-up to the Feb. 24 trade deadline, with playoff implications at almost every turn — almost — this might be how the Rangers’ season gets bled dry.
The Rangers (26-23-4) were coming off Wednesday’s 5-3 win over the Maple Leafs at the Garden, a game in which rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin stole the show by picking up his fourth win in five career starts. But he was a healthy scratch for this one as the three-goalie carousel kept spinning, Alexandar Georgiev getting the go against the plummeting Sabres (24-23-8), who lost at home Thursday in a shootout to the Red Wings.
This was Georgiev’s first start against a team other than the Islanders since Jan. 4 at Vancouver. He started three games against the Isles in that span and played the third period during Monday’s 5-3 loss to the visiting Stars.
By the time the third period started Friday, Georgiev had been bettered by his counterpart, Carter Hutton, who had turned aside all 16 shots he faced to give his team a 2-0 lead.
The Rangers didn’t have much of a push for the first 17 minutes of the third, and after a Jacob Trouba turnover — followed by Trouba just watching the play go by him — old pal Jimmy Vesey slipped one between Georgiev’s legs at 11:56 to give his team a 3-0 lead.
Coach David Quinn then put his big three together — Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider — and Panarin made a great cross-ice backhand feed to Zibanejad, who buried it at the back post to make it 3-1 with 2:53 remaining in regulation.
Rookie Kaapo Kakko — who had started the game on the fourth line — then took a shift with the big boys and drew a hooking penalty. Quinn pulled Georgiev for the extra attacker, and Kreider was able to bang one just over the goal line to make it 3-2 with just 1:38 left.
But that was it, as the deficit proved too big to overcome.
The first 40 minutes were rather tepid, as the Sabres did everything they could to keep the pace at a minimum and the Rangers did little to change that. But Buffalo was able to take a 1-0 lead at 10:26 of the first when the Rangers were caught in a bad change and Zemgus Girgensons went to the front of the net and slipped a backhand past Georgiev.
Midway through the second, Georgiev was forced to make a great save on a Buffalo power play, lunging to get a left pad on a Sam Reinhart shot to keep the score at 1-0. But he couldn’t stop Reinhart when he came barreling down the middle on a semi-breakaway and quickly lifted a backhand high into the net at 15:16 of the second, giving Buffalo a 2-0 lead.
Kakko had some nifty stick-handling to get himself a shot on goal late in the second. But Hutton stopped it, and the Sabres took their two-goal edge into the third.