Alexis Lafreniere sits in the Rangers locker room with the puck of his memorable first NHL goal that came in overtime to defeat the Sabres. The victim was Linus Ullmark. AP Photo by New York Rangers courtesy Getty Images
This one was badly needed. That it was delivered by the future of the franchise was special. Playing in a tie game during three-on-three overtime despite dominating it, the Rangers got a badly needed 3-2 win over the Sabres thanks to top pick Alexis Lafreniere. He scored his first NHL goal at 2:47 to deliver a memorable moment.
The magic moment came when coach David Quinn showed faith in the 19-year old kid. Rewarding Lafreniere for his good play which included some pointblank chances that were thwarted by red hot Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark, Quinn sent the rookie over the boards with surprising revelation Colin Blackwell. Immediately, Blackwell made two good defensive plays with the second leading to a two-on-one. He made the perfect pass for Lafreniere, who waited before firing a great wrist shot upstairs to beat Ullmark for the overtime winner.
Mobbed by excited teammates who poured off the bench to congratulate him, Lafreniere was all smiles. He sure deserved it. Despite not having a point in the first six games, his confidence never wavered. Lafreniere continued to skate well and go to the hard areas in search of his first NHL point. Whether it was a goal or assist, he was doing the right things. That’s why Quinn decided to keep him on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. He could’ve had it sooner if not for Ullmark flat out robbing him on a great set up. There was also a rebound opportunity that was denied.
The only reason the game required overtime was Ullmark. After fighting the puck early on in his second start versus the Blueshirts in three days, he became a brick wall. His team was so badly outplayed that shots were 15-5 in the first period and 24-9 after two. For the game, Ullmark made 36 saves with every one coming in regulation. Some of the spectacular variety. He once again turned into Dominik Hasek wearing those classic Sabres throwbacks.
It was all Rangers in the first 40 minutes. After easily killing off a foolish cross-checking minor from Brendan Lemieux, they dictated play throughout the first period. With newly formed lines that included sparkplug Blackwell playing with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin while Chris Kreider worked with Brett Howden and Kaapo Kakko, who had an active game, the Rangers came out aggressively. Hungry to the puck, they won most of the battles against a flat Buffalo team that didn’t look ready to play. The fourth line consisted of Lemieux with Kevin Rooney and Phil Di Giuseppe.
A sustained attack allowed them to finally get on the scoreboard first. With Buchnevich still on, he drew attention before passing down low to Panarin. The Bread Man then fed Strome for a nice finish to put the Rangers ahead 1-0 at 9:44. It was Strome’s second goal. He is still without an assist, but his confidence is coming back.
If not for Ullmark, they could’ve had more. Instead, the Sabres number one goalie kept his team afloat. A rookie mistake by K’Andre Miller hurt the Rangers near the period’s conclusion. After his hard dump in came all the way around and out, it fueled the Buffalo transition. The puck came to Sam Reinhart, who pulled up inside the Rangers blue line and centered a pass in front for Jack Eichel, who got position on Miller to put the puck home with 21.3 seconds to go. A bad break. Miller was unable to deny Eichel, who scored for a second consecutive game.
With the contest all even, the Blueshirts continued to play well in the second period. They had some power play opportunities including one in the first minute. The problem was they couldn’t cash in. Quinn changed up his top unit by deciding to move Buchnevich up and Strome down. He also threw a different look by teaming Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox at the points. Kreider was moved to the second unit. Throughout, they generated scoring chances and plenty of looks. But nobody could score on it. An issue that still must be resolved when they return home starting Saturday for four of the next five games.
With the defense not giving up anything, the Rangers held the edge in territorial play. Ironically, it was during four-on-four with less than five minutes remaining that they were able to retake the lead. Both Blackwell and Jake McCabe were taken off the ice for interference and slashing minors with 5:43 left.
Less than two minutes later, Panarin had a puck bounce back to him due to a Matt Irwin miscue. It worked like a pass with Panarin quickly firing a wrist shot in short side for his third unassisted with 3:50 left in the period. A Strome slashing minor 61 seconds later was easily killed off by the Rangers penalty kill. The unit included Buchnevich and Kreider with both doing a good job. So did Brendan Smith and Jacob Trouba.
Through 40 minutes, Igor Shestyorkin had hardly been tested. He had eight saves. The only blemish was not his fault. It was a tip in from Eichel at 19:38 of the first. He still looked calm and more focused despite the lack of activity.
An undisciplined Ryan Lindgren minor penalty for cross-checking Kyle Okposo from behind into the boards was mind numbing. Not only because it was dangerous given Okposo’s history and where it was. But due to it being unnecessary. Lindgren’s second penalty of the night cost the team.
As good as the penalty killing had been up to that point, they were unable to get the job done. Just 20 seconds into the minor, Taylor Hall and Victor Olofsson combined to set up Reinhart at the doorstep for a neat deflection inside the goalpost. The power play goal tied the score at two with 15:13 remaining.
Afterwards, the play was more even. It was a little wide open with the teams combining for 29 shots. Buffalo held a 15-14 edge after only totaling nine entering the third. However, Shestyorkin didn’t allow the Reinhart power play goal to deflate him. He made some quality stops to keep Buffalo in check. So too did Ullmark, who was never better than on a Rangers power play.
Following Jeff Skinner foolishly clearing the puck into the stands, the Blueshirts had a golden opportunity to reclaim the lead. After a timeout from Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, Quinn sent out his new top unit. They did everything but score. Controlling possession for the full two minutes, they had good shots on Ullmark. It didn’t matter. Nobody could beat him. Even with DeAngelo teamed with Fox at the points looking better than what they had, nothing got past Ullmark. There were a couple of passes from Panarin and Fox that probably should’ve been shots. However, they couldn’t have had a better power play. It was the brilliant play of the goalie that kept it tied up.
Eventually, the game would need overtime. Quinn featured Panarin with Mika Zibanejad and Fox. He also used Buchnevich with Kreider and DeAngelo, who had a good game despite not hitting the score sheet.
When it was time to put another combination out there, Quinn didn’t hesitate to throw Lafreniere out with Blackwell. It was curious to see Blackwell chosen over Strome, who’s a good skater in three-on-three. However, Quinn knew. As if to confirm it, Blackwell stole the puck from Eichel and then calmly set up Lafreniere for the overtime winner. His first NHL point was an overtime goal. One he’ll remember forever.
It ended a four-game losing streak. It came at a perfect time. The Rangers really needed this one. They needed two points. Even if there’s no way Buffalo should’ve gotten a point, that’s what a hot goalie can do.
Seeing the poise with which Lafreniere finished off his first goal and handled his interview with CBC was great. He’s a very mature kid. There is a lot to like. This one is special.
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, Rangers (3rd goal of season, assist, 4 SOG, +2 in 21:06)
2nd 🌟 Linus Ullmark, Sabres (36 saves including 22/24 1st two periods)
1st 🌟 Alexis Lafreniere, Rangers (overtime winner for 1st NHL goal, 4 SOG, +1 in 15:27)