The world wanted to anoint the Buffalo Sabres world champions after their Game 1 win over the Rangers. After Game 3, even though they still hold the upper hand with a 2-1 lead in the series, it has become clear that they are not (yet) the best team in this series let alone the best team in the league. Two mistakes (Malik and Mara in Game 2), two bad periods by Henrik Lundqvist (4:05 in the second period of Game 1 and the third period of Game 2), and two huge assists from the zebrae (most of Games 1 and 3) are all that stand between the Sabres and the Thrashers right now. The Rangers have been at their best in the last two games, and the Sabres are lucky -- blessed by the powers that be -- to have escaped with one win in Game 2 and something beyond lucky to have stayed close enough to weather most of double overtime before the Rangers took Game 3 by a 2-1 final score.
"We definitely deserved to win," said Brendan Shanahan. "We had the advantage. It would have been a tough one to lose. We played well enough to win last game and didn't get it -- it would have been a tough pill to swallow to have the same thing happen again today." "It was a must-win for us," said Lundqvist, who was impeccable, beaten only by a power play deflection off his own defenseman, not by any Sabres. "We dominated the game -- we deserved to win. The way we played up in Buffalo the last game was a tough one for us." "I'm mad about the second one where we lost in Buffalo," said Jaromir Jagr, who scored on one of his ten shots on goal in a monster performance. "I never felt like that before, down 2-0 -- I had a lot of good feelings about this game. The way we played in Buffalo, we just had a little bad luck. We gave them the victory. If we can keep playing the same way, we have a chance."
The Rangers had more bad luck in this game, if you can call it luck -- the Rangers can't call it anything else or else they'll be fined by the NHL. The NHL is lucky that the Rangers won this game, or else they would have faced Exhibit A on national TV in the US of why they are a Mickey Mouse league. The Rangers' dominance of this game was taken completely away from them by league officials in the "War Room" in Toronto and by the referees on the ice. An apparent second period goal by Karel Rachunek was negated by video review for having been kicked in. In making the ruling, the league failed to properly apply two stringent criteria -- the kicking motion had to be "distinct", which was not at all clear from any replay, and the evidence had to be "conclusive" to overturn the ruling on the ice of a goal, which again was not at all clear.
"We felt that second goal of ours should've counted," said Shanahan. "I've seen replays of it -- it absolutely should've been a goal in my opinion." "Our video coach made his way to the bench pretty animated," said Renney. "He wasn't happy. It was not a kicking motion. It has to be a distinct kicking motion. If that's distinct then we're all in trouble. Those kind of things have to be clarified."
From that point on, the officials tried everything they could to hand this game to Buffalo. They called six straight penalties on the Rangers while letting the Sabres get away with similar infractions. "Those were some tough calls," said Renney. "Usually through the course of the game they balance themselves off -- maybe that was not quite the case tonight." Jagr was called for tripping on a play where he was playing the puck and the opponent stepped on his stick. "I got a crosschecking penalty when I only had one hand on my stick," said Shanahan. "We're not going to be given anything," said Renney. "We're the type of team that's going to have to earn respect every single game we play. That's just because we're the New York Rangers. People just love to hate us."
When the Rangers did finally get a call late in the first overtime period, it took a rare Jagr dive to draw it -- Jagr doesn't like to dive, but apparently he felt he no longer had a choice. The power play was perhaps the only part of their game that failed to click -- otherwise, they were simply perfect against the vaunted Sabres. Defensively, they made every play, especially on the many penalty kills. Lundqvist backstopped them flawlessly when pucks did get through. The offense may not have scored much, but the pressure was there without sacrificing any defense.
And they finally got a break when Michal Rozsival's point shot late in the second overtime session found its way through a tangle of bodies (Jagr's screen, primarily) and rang in off the post. "We had a great view of the shot from the bench," said Shanahan. "It was perfect. If you draw a line straight from where the puck went back to our bench, we had a great view of it. There was traffic in front and there was probably only one place he could put the puck, and he put it there, off the post and in. We were getting to our feet before it even went into the net because we could see it was traveling there."
"I had my eyes closed, actually," Rozsival said. "It was a lucky shot. I was just trying to get it on the net and hopefully somebody’s going to tip it. Anything can happen when you put it on the net. This is the biggest goal of my career, definitely. It can’t get any better, scoring a game-winning goal in overtime."
If the Rangers' power play ever clicks, if the refs ever give them a fair shake, and if Lundqvist plays like he did today the rest of the way, the Sabres' Stanley Cup run is going be shaken to its foundation -- if their good fortune thus far ultimately proves to be enough to help them advance, they will move on as an exposed club. But even having been spotted the first two games, the Sabres are no lock to advance, not after the way the Rangers have exposed them in the past two games (and even a bit before that).
Local news coverage abounds -- game reports, stories on Jagr, Rozsival, Lundqvist, et.al. See the Daily News here, here, and here; the Journal News here and here; Newsday here, here, here, and here; the Post here, here, and here; the Star-Ledger here and here; the Record here and here; and also the Times, Advance, AP, SNY, and NY Sports Day, plus pre-game reports from Blueshirts Blog, Blue Notes, and Rangers Report. From out of town, the Buffalo News here, here, and here, the National Post, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, SI.com, ESPN.com, USA Today here and here, and THN here and here. If you missed them yesterday, check out the Sunday columns in the Post, Times, Newsday, and Ledger. For reports on Hartford's playoff ouster, see the Courant the Wolf Pack web site.