BUFFALO, N.Y. — Antti Raanta made Henrik Lundqvist’s absence less of an issue on a night the New York Rangers were hardly at their best.
Raanta stopped the final 24 shots he faced, and the Rangers held on for a 4-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday after nearly squandering a 3-0 lead.
“We didn’t play our best game,” said Mats Zuccarello, who had a goal and two assists. “I think we’re just happy to do what we had to do to win, and Raanta played good. So he’s good to have back there right now.”
Making his third consecutive start since Lundqvist was sidelined by neck spasms, Raanta bounced back after allowing five goals on 31 shots in a 6-4 loss to the New York Islanders on Sunday. And the Rangers didn’t make it easy for him against Buffalo.
The Sabres scored twice in the final 10 minutes of the second period, and then put 19 shots on net in the third.
“We got a 3-0 lead but then we took the leg off the gas and gave them momentum,” said Raanta, who improved to 8-5-2 this season, and 2-1 since Lundqvist was sidelined. “The third period was a good battle for everybody, and it was nice to come back after the Sunday game and take two points.”
On an even brighter note, coach Alain Vigneault said Lundqvist has a chance to return by this weekend, and forward Rick Nash — who has missed 20 games with a bone bruise — might not be far behind after the two skated back home earlier in the day.
J.T. Miller sealed the victory with a backhander into an empty net with a minute left. Derrick Brassard and Jesper Fast also scored for New York, which extended its winning streak over Buffalo to nine.
The Rangers haven’t lost to the Sabres since a 3-1 decision on March 12, 2013. They improved to 13-2 in their past 15 meetings.
Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson scored for Buffalo. The Sabres were 2-0-2 in their previous four and blew a chance for their first five-game point streak since going 7-0-2 in March 2012.
Buffalo was undone by defensive breakdowns and poor goaltending.
Brassard opened the scoring with his 24th goal when Zuccarello set him up for a power-play breakaway 7:30 into the game.
Sabres starter Robin Lehner was then pulled after giving up goals on consecutive shots 1:27 apart early in the second. Zuccarello beat Lehner from a bad angle by sneaking in a shot through the goalie’s pads. Fast took advantage of teammate Chris Kreider’s screen on Lehner, snapping a shot inside the left post to make it 3-0.
Coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t pleased with Lehner giving up the bad-angle goal to Zuccarello, but added he yanked Lehner in favour of Chad Johnson in a bid to provide his team a spark. Captain Brian Gionta said the team got the message.
“It was wake-up call for everybody. We all needed to be better,” Gionta said. “We showed a lot by sticking with it, but you give a good team a 3-0 lead and it’s going to be tough.”
Johnson stopped all 11 shots he faced.
The Rangers continued avoiding slumps. New York improved to 20-10-2 in its past 32, and hasn’t lost consecutive games since losing three straight from Dec. 17-20.
“If I look at our process tonight, it wasn’t our best game,” Vigneault said. “But we did find a way to win.”
NOTES: The Rangers had a goal disallowed with 3:03 left in the second. Eric Staal scored, but officials waved off the goal by ruling Rangers forward Oscar Lindberg pushed Johnson into the net with the puck under him. … The Sabres’ longest winless streak against the Rangers occurred in the franchise’s first two seasons, when Buffalo went 0-10-2 in its first 12 meetings against New York from 1970-72. … Originally listed day to day, Rangers D Dylan McIlrath will now miss a few weeks after he hurt a kneecap Sunday. … After collecting three goals and seven assists in his first 10 games against Buffalo, Brassard has three goals and four assists in two meetings this season, including a career-best five points (two goals, three assists) in a 6-3 win on Jan. 25.