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Sabres Central

Rangers break Sabres again
By Rick Anderson
December 16, 2001

Miro Satan fights for the puck along with Rangers Igor Ulanov during first period action. The Rangers defeated Buffalo for the third time this year, 4-2.
[AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky]

The Buffalo Sabres continued to struggle against the New York Rangers on Saturday at Madison Square Garden and by losing 4-2, they have given the Rangers a big boost in their quest to capture a playoff spot this season. The Rangers are one of the teams Buffalo has to overtake if they figure on making a strong comeback in the second half of the season and vie for a playoff spot themselves. Only 8 teams will make the Eastern Conference playoff list. With the improved play of both the Islanders and Rangers, it makes the Sabres goal that much more improbable.

The Sabres spotted the Rangers 3 goals before they made any effort to play hockey. After registering only 4 shots on New York goalie Mike Richter in the first period, the Sabres looked like a very uninspired group as they headed to the locker room behind 3-0 after two periods. No emotion was being displayed as the players walked down the corridor following an embarrassing two periods. The question is what will get this team inspired to play the kind of desperation hockey it needs to play to get back into playoff competition?

This time Noronen can't save the day

Mika Noronen started his second straight game. But with little support in front of him, he could not prevent the Rangers from setting up shop in the crease and getting 3 discs past him. Without the services of Eric Lindros, who was out with a sprained knee, the Rangers didn't even seem to miss a beat without the big center. The Sabres defense took the night off as it allowed the Rangers to park in front of Noronen and take shot after shot without being taken out.

With the two teams playing scoreless hockey for the first 14 minutes, Mike York came in on Noronen, pulled him out with a nice move as he got behind the net. Then York pulled a rabbit out of his hat as he reached around Biron and tipped the puck from an impossible angle into the net.

In the second stanza, the Rangers had Noronen down as two players took numerous shots from the crease area with Sabres standing around in a daze. After making around 4 brilliant stops, Theo Fleury was left unchecked in the crease as Curtis Brown allowed him to finish off the flurry of rubber thrown at Noronen as he put the puck up high over the sprawled Sabres goalie at the 10:21 mark of the second stanza.

The minutes later, the Rangers got the winning goal when Mark Messier clanked one off the right goal post and it went into the net, making it 3-0. Mikael Samuelsson got Messier positioned for his 1,800th NHL point when he found the Rangers' captain in the right faceoff circle.

"Sammy got me the puck, he made a super play," recounted Messier. "I came in late and he put the puck on my stick. I saw there was a little congestion in front of the net and I knew if I hit the side of the net it had a chance to go in."

Sabres comeback - too little too late

Finally in the third period, the Sabres woke up from their mid-December slumber and put some pressure on Richter. With Noronen leaving early in the period with a strained back muscle, Biron came in a blanked the Rangers the rest of the way.

Rangers goalie Mike Richter makes a save on Buffalo's Denis Hamel as Mark Messier comes in to help out.
[AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky]

Slava Kozlov, who is one of the few Sabres hustling these days, scored his 7th goal as a Sabre when he charged Richter and put on shot on the goalie. The puck came back to him and as he entered the crease, the puck deflected off his skate past Richter. After the Rangers called for a video review, it was deemed that Kozlov didn't direct it in deliberately with his skate.

Matthew Barnaby, playing his first game with the Rangers after being traded from Tampa Bay, decided to make a mark on the player the Sabres traded him for a couple years ago with Pittsburgh. Stu Barnes was taken heavily into the boards and Barnaby was tagged with a 5-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct. The Sabres suddenly had a chance to get even in the game if they powerplay would pick it up a few notches.

Maxim Afinogenov, who scored two goals the night before against the Hurricanes, got the puck at high part of the right faceoff circle and lifted a shot that went behind Richter and cut the Rangers' lead to just one. J.P. Dumont was standing in front of Richter and it appeared as if he may have tipped it, but Maxim was given credit for his third goal in two nights.

Buffalo continued their powerplay and late in the game pulled Biron in favor of yet another extra attacker. However, the Rangers were able to keep the puck away from Richter for the most part and with time running out, Jeff Toms put one into the vacated Sabres net a microsecond before the green light went on to signal the end of the game.

Sabres playoff hopes sinking

With Christmas just a week and a half away, the Sabres are already in danger of falling completely out of the playoff race. As the playoff race in the East stands right now, Buffalo is in 12th place. Eight will make the playoffs. Toronto leads all the teams in the East with 45 points, followed by the Rangers with 40, the Isles with 39, Boston and Carolina both with 38, Philly and Ottawa sharing the 6th and 7th spot with 36, followed by Montreal with 34, New Jersey and Washington with 33 and Pittsburgh is in the 11th spot with 32 points. Looking over the current standings, it appears as if the Rangers and Islanders are legit contenders this year for playoff spots. Those were two teams the Sabres counted on finishing ahead of. Not this year.

The four teams blocking the Sabres route to the last and final playoff spot, the Habs, the Devils, Caps and Pens all are going to put up a big fight for the finish, kind of like the Taliban's last stand at Tora Bora.

Of those 4, only Pittsburgh and Montreal appear like teams Buffalo could possible move ahead of. The Penguins have owned the Sabres the last 3 years. It is like the Sabres trying to get water out of a stone in getting ANY points when they play the Pens. The Caps and Devils will only get better as the season progresses. The Devils have already made their move, as the Eastern Conference champs of last year are starting to get hot right before Christmas. The Caps have the highest paid player in the league in Jaromir Jagr and once he starts clicking, watch out.

In considering all the talent above the Sabres in the standings, it appears very unlikely that Buffalo will host any postseason play at HSBC Arena this year. That could prove disastrous for the Rigas family who owns the Sabres. Claiming to have lost some $18 million last season, John Rigas has pulled the purse strings even tighter this year when he failed to compensate the loss of such highly paid players as Dominik Hasek, Doug Gilmour and Michael Peca. When all is said and done, Rigas might have been wise to have acquired a big name to help fill the stands and get the Sabres at least some first round playoff dates to help bolster the gate revenue. As it stands, his refusal to bring in some talent to replace the loss of star power will hurt him in the end where it matters the most, as the team goes even deeper into the red.

Sabres Talk

Noronen hated to leave the game, but his back injury forced him out.

"It's my second game this year," Noronen said, "and I really want to play up here. I didn't want to come off and say, "Marty, you've got to go.' "

Barnes, who had scored the game winner the night before, tried to explain the Sabres lack of effort in the first two periods.

"Obviously we struggled," explained Barnes. "It's up to us whether we're tired or not to find a way to get some goals. Every team has to go through this at some point of the season, playing back-to-back games."

While the Sabres apparently didn't feel they needed to win the game in New York, the Rangers were the more desperate team and played like it.

"We had to have a great team effort tonight," said Rangers coach Ron Low. "We really needed a win and there was a lot of talk about it before the game."

"There were some good goals tonight, good plays, and a lot of guys did a lot of good things," Low continued. "We did a lot of things better in our own zone and in the neutral zone."

Barnaby, commented on how he felt he got a raw deal on that 5-minute major for boarding Barnes.

"He got the puck, I took him out," defended Barnaby. "That was just it -- a rough call. I couldn't believe it. I kept everything down and I hit him flush."

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