NEW YORK – Beads of sweat still dripping from their faces, the Buffalo Sabres sat quietly in their dressing room at Madison Square Garden during the second intermission Monday night.
Devon Levi, their rookie goalie, stared at the floor as he mentally prepared for the New York Rangers to test him in the third period. Alex Tuch, one of their heart-and-soul leaders, saw no signs of panic or frustration when he looked around the room with the Sabres facing a one-goal deficit against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Everyone knew what was at stake. A regulation loss would extend the franchise’s playoff drought to 12 seasons. Even a win might not be enough because the Sabres needed help from other teams. Few in the group had experienced games of this magnitude, yet they weren’t fazed by the challenge that awaited on the ice.
Casey Mittelstadt scored the tying goal with 11:47 left in regulation, then delivered the game-winner on a backhanded shot in the fifth shootout round to back another impressive performance by Levi in a 3-2 victory over the Rangers.
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When the celebration moved from the ice to the dressing room, the Sabres learned they got the help they needed. The New York Islanders lost in regulation to the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers dropped a game in overtime to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Buffalo’s first 40-win season since 2010-11 has kept the Sabres’ playoff hopes alive entering their 80th game of the season. They’re four points out of the final spot with two games in hand.
“It means a lot, honestly,” said Tuch. “Keep battling, each and every day. The whole season obviously hasn’t gone our way. We’re on the outside looking in, but we’re still working. We’re still pushing. Until we’re out, we’re not gonna stop. … We’re just focused on tomorrow night. It was a good start to four games in five days, but it’s a start. We’ve got to get ready for tomorrow.”
There were no signs of joy when reporters entered the dressing room after Levi finished the shootout by stopping Kaapo Kaakko. Mittelstadt, like Tuch, immediately mentioned what’s ahead for the Sabres, who improved to 40-32-7 and are 7-1-1 in their last nine. Their game Tuesday night in New Jersey against the Devils will be their first of three in four nights to finish the regular season.
It’s a daunting path to snapping a playoff drought that dates to 2011, but the Sabres’ performance illustrated how one of the youngest teams in the NHL learned from the brutal skids that almost derailed their season.
The Sabres held the Rangers to only 28 shots on goal and didn’t fall apart when Artemi Panari scored his second goal in 11:11 to give New York a 2-1 lead with 8:48 to play in the second period. The Rangers relied on their remarkable goalie, Igor Shesterkin, to put Buffalo on the brink entering the final 20 minutes of regulation.
The Sabres were the aggressor in the third period, and JJ Peterka nearly scored his second goal of the game when he hit the post with 5:14 left. Shesterkin then stopped Kyle Okposo from in tight when Peyton Krebs found Buffalo’s captain with a pass to the front of the net.
“The entire situation right now is tremendous for what we need, for what our entire organization needs,” said Sabres coach Don Granato. “We need pressure games, and you know we had a lot of pressure on us a month and a half ago and we didn’t react well enough. We needed to learn from it.”
This wasn’t some last-minute act of desperation to try to save their season. The Sabres looked strong from the outset with Peterka scoring 14:24 into the game to give them a 1-0 lead, and they outshot the Rangers 14-4 over the first 20 minutes.
Two glaring mistakes in their own end led to Panarin’s pair of one-timer goals in the second period. Earlier in the season, as recent as last month during a 2-8-2 skid, Buffalo might have buckled under the pressure of a must-win game when trailing. After all, the Rangers entered Monday with a 26-4-3 record when leading at the second intermission, and they were 12-2-3 with a plus-30 goal differential in their previous 17 games.
The Sabres responded by swarming the Rangers each time they touched the puck, a relentless approach that paid off when Tuch forced a turnover and setup Mittelstadt for the tying goal. Twice, Buffalo almost won in overtime, only to watch Shesterkin make a save. Levi, who made 26 stops in regulation, allowed the tying goal in the fourth shootout round, only to stop the next attempt to make Mittelstadt’s goal stand as the winner.
“I think we’ve done a really nice job of bouncing back and learning from (our struggles),” said Tuch. “We continue to grow as a unit, as a team, and everyone continues to push each other. Our expectations for ourselves continue to rise.”
Here are other observations from the game:
Cozens almost scored in overtime and finished with a team-high five shots on goal despite missing a shift in the second period because he blocked a shot with the right side of his foot.
Shesterkin, who made 36 saves, had to quickly move over to his right to deny Cozens with 44 seconds to go, then Cozens got to his rebound and put a backhand shot on net.
Mittelstadt set a new career-high in the third period with his 13th goal of the season. The 24-year-old center’s 21:13 of ice time was also the most he’s skated in a game during his five-plus NHL seasons. He has three goals and 12 points in his last eight games, some of which he’s spent as the center on Buffalo’s top line next to Tuch and Jeff Skinner.
Fans were treated to a spectacular display of goaltending late in the second period, when Levi stopped Kaakko in tight and recovered to deny Nikko Mikkola’s attempt from the high slot.
Moments later, Shesterkin stymied Rasmus Dahlin’s low shot through traffic and, sensing Owen Power was uncovered to his left, the Russian goalie got over in time to stop the rookie defenseman when the Rangers were unable to prevent Zemgus Girgensons’ pass from across the slot.
Levi joined Tom Barrasso and Don Edwards as the only goalies in franchise history to begin their career with four wins in five starts.
“First and foremost he battles, he competes,” Tuch said of Levi. “He came in here with a mindset to try to prove himself and has done so. … Any shot against, he’s ready for it. He’s determined to keep the puck out of the net, and you know what it’s really impressive to see and that was an unbelievable showing.”
Peterka’s goal capped an impressive shift by his line with Jack Quinn and Tyson Jost. They cycled the puck in the offensive zone until Quinn stickhandled around a Rangers defenseman, then Peterka made the right decision to skate down the slot to get in position for the pass that he used to score for his 12th goal of the season.
Peterka, Quinn and Owen Power are the second trio of Sabres rookies to record at least 30 points each in a season and first since Calle Johansson (42), Ray Sheppard (65) and Pierre Turgeon (42) in 1987-88. Power skated 25:47 in the win and scored in the fourth shootout round.
• This was the second time in three games that Dahlin eclipsed 30 minutes. He skated 30:40 and had a plus-1 rating.
• The Sabres conducted a video conference call Monday with prospect Ryan Johnson and his agents to discuss the possibility of the University of Minnesota senior defenseman signing an entry-level contract with Buffalo, a source told The News. Johnson, 21, was drafted in the first round, 31st overall, in 2019. The Sabres receive a second-round draft pick in 2024 if Johnson signs elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
• Victor Olofsson, Vinnie Hinostroza, Kale Clague, Jacob Bryson, Eric Comrie and Craig Anderson were the Sabres’ healthy scratches.
The Sabres wrap the road trip Tuesday night in Newark with a game against the New Jersey Devils at 7 p.m.