Every one in a while, even the best teams need reminders about the right way to play the game. Friday night versus the Buffalo Sabres, the New York Rangers were given a harsh lesson in sticking to their defense-first style, as the Madison Square Garden visitors capitalized on a number of odd-man rushes en route to a 4-1 Blueshirts' loss.
It was a game that featured a possible No. 1 versus No. 8 playoff matchup, and the Sabres exposed the Eastern Conference's top team, even knocking out Mats Zuccarello with a broken wrist after he blocked a shot.
This was a contest that also pitted two of the league's more talented netminders -- New York's Henrik Lundqvist and Buffalo's Ryan Miller -- against each other The Rangers typically play a lot of close games and win with their defensive foundation, and the Sabres had been surging up the standings into playoff contention.
The first period was indicative of just that -- neither team found the scoresheet, the netminders made big saves and both squads played pretty solid defense. New York sustained pressure for about half of the period, with Buffalo coming on a bit more in the final 10 minutes.
Travis Turnbull's first career goal was a fluke: From along the backboards, he flung the puck, and it deflected off of John Mitchell's skate and into the net. The Rangers answered right back, though, with a marker from Brian Boyle six minutes later.
But the leaks were exposed from that point forward. Mitchell, instead of getting it deep into the Sabres' zone, turned it over in the offensive zone, and that led to the first of three-straight odd-man rush goals. Mitchell wouldn't see the ice in the third period after that mistake, but it didn't matter, as Buffalo took advantage of turnovers and poor backchecking to score two more times in the third.
The Rangers often tried to do too much in the offensive zone, and it hurt them. Their winning brand has featured a more cautious pinching approach, but against the Sabres, a number of guys were caught too deep in the zone. There's something to be said for being aggressive, but it has to be done within the system.
Zuccarello's loss is a huge one. Since his recall, he had been a much more responsible defensive player. His offensive creativity is a dimension the Rangers will, again, sorely lack. There aren't many guys on the team who can pass like he can.
New York is one point ahead of Pittsburgh for the No. 1 seed in the East.