Sabres’ Ales Kotalik dives for the puck under pressure from Rangers’ Marek Malik during the first period at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y., Wednesday.AP photo
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ales Kotalik and the Buffalo Sabres provided an answer to anyone questioning whether they are the elite team in the NHL.
It’s a response that came through loud and clear in a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Wednesday night.
“I think we showed everybody we were ready,” Kotalik said. “A lot of things were said before the game, and we made sure we showed to respond not in the paper but on the ice.”
Kotalik was referring to Rangers coach Tom Renney’s comments suggesting the top-seeded Sabres weren’t the league’s “cream of the crop.”
“Yeah, obviously, everybody heard it,” Kotalik said. “We talked about it. It’s a good thing.”
Thomas Vanek scored twice and Kotalik once during a three-goal second-period that broke open a scoreless game and put the Sabres in control.
It was a vintage outburst — Buffalo scored three times on four shots in a 4:05 span — for a potent Sabres team that scored a league-leading 308 goals in the regular season. And it erased whatever lingering memories the Sabres had after they were inconsistent in dispatching the New York Islanders in five games in the first round.
“When we finally got that first one past (goalie Henrik Lundqvist), it was, ’All right,”’ Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said. “For us, it gave us confidence and we just kept attacking.”
The five goals were the most the Sabres have scored this postseason and were one short of the total the Rangers allowed in a four-game, first-round series sweep of Southeast Division champion Atlanta.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Friday at Buffalo.
Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford, with an empty-net goal, also scored for the Sabres.
Marcel Hossa and Brendan Shanahan scored third-period goals for New York, which never got closer than two goals in the final 20 minutes.
“Mentally, we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be, and not as sharp as we’ll be next game,” Shanahan said. “I don’t know if they outplayed us, but they outperformed us.”
The Rangers went 1-for-5 in power-play chances, but failed to score during a 2-minute, two-man advantage early in the third period.
“We haven’t played in a while and it really showed,” Renney said, noting the Rangers played their first game in a week.
Rust wasn’t the only problem. New York had difficulty keeping up with the Sabres’ depth and speed.
That was apparent when the Sabres finally got one past Lundqvist, who was otherwise sharp in stopping the first 23 shots he faced.
Vanek opened the scoring 14 minutes into the second period with a power-play goal. Parked in front and a step ahead of defender Daniel Girardi, Vanek was in perfect position to deflect in Dmitri Kalinin’s shot from inside the blue line.
Buffalo’s fourth line struck for the next goal when Kotalik, set up by Adam Mair’s pass, split two defenders and snapped a shot from the right circle that beat Lundqvist high on the far side.
Vanek capped the surge when he got by Karel Rachunek at the Rangers’ blue line, drove in and around Paul Mara, and scored on a defenseless Lundqvist.
“We’ve been known when we can get a couple of quick ones, we can get the third one fairly soon after that,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We said, ’Let’s keep attacking.’ That looked a lot like the team that played most of the year.”
Ryan Miller stopped 32 shots, having his shutout bid foiled when Hossa beat him with a one-timer with 9:16 left, briefly cutting Buffalo’s lead to 3-1.
Miller’s best save came a few minutes earlier during the Rangers’ two-man advantage, when he snagged Shanahan’s shot despite being screened by New York’s Sean Avery.
“We have the utmost respect for our opponent,” Renney said. “We’ll be well-organized and well-prepared.”
The Rangers welcomed back Rachunek, who had missed 16 games with a sprained right knee. But New York then lost Michal Rozsival, the Rangers top offensive defenseman, who didn’t return after hurting his leg early in the second period.