We’re just over two weeks into 2018, and it’s already weird. People are eating laundry detergent, the Jacksonville Jaguars are one win away from the Super Bowl, and every team in the Metropolitan Division is facing must-win games night in and night out.
For the New York Rangers, that increases tenfold tonight against the Buffalo Sabres (7:30 PM, MSG/NBCSN).
The Rangers were in the midst of a brutal stretch, having not won in regulation since before Christmas, but happy times, for only for a short while, returned to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, in the form of a 5-1 win over the rival Philadelphia Flyers. It was perhaps the Rangers’ best effort all season, scoring five unanswered goals in a dominating effort over their Metropolitan Division brethren. It was their first regulation win since December 19, and the first time they allowed less than 30 shots since November 22’s 6-1 win over Carolina.
After that win, ideas of selling, angry discussions of lineups, were set aside. The Rangers (23-17-5) began the night the lottery bunch, but the win catapulted them back to the top wild card spot in the East. Anaheim did the Rangers a further favor last night, topping the chasing Penguins 5-3 in a late night thriller at Honda Center.
The goodwill, however, would be destroyed with a loss tonight.
Statement wins are essential in all sports, but their impact must go well beyond the clock hits zero in that statement win. Rutgers men’s basketball, for example, has had several potential statement wins over the past several seasons, including a shocking win over in-state rival Seton Hall in December, but followed that up with losses to mid-majors Stony Brook and Hartford.
The Rangers have a mid-major of their own coming through tonight …the Buffalo Sabres.
Stuck in an apparent perpetual rebuild, the rise of their football counterparts hasn’t done much for the Sabres. Trapped at 11-24-9, they recently were spared a week off from their dreary season, one that received a rare reprieve with a 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Prior to that, they were 0-4-1 in the young calendar year, the lone single in that equation being the 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers on the 2018’s opening day, as JT Miller’s decider kicked off a frozen celebration at Citi Field.
Faced with a rematch tonight at MSG, the Rangers cannot afford, under any circumstance, to blow this one.
Depending on what the Blue Jackets do in a home showdown with the Dallas Stars, the Rangers can find themselves in one of the East’s top three playoff spots by the end of the night. At the same time, however, it’s getting to be late early, as Yogi Berra once foretold. The remainder of the Metro is hot on the Rangers’ tails, and, after tonight, the Rangers will embark on a dangerous four-game Western road trip, one that will conclude their pre-All-Star break slate.
To lose to Buffalo would be a brutal way to go into that a trip, a devastating way to kill momentum generated by the best collaborative effort of the season. Should they lose, it’d be a crushing blow in a season that would’ve featured several, if not for the head-standing antics of Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec.
It doesn’t matter how they do it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, be it 40 minutes like it was against Philadelphia, a full 60 minutes, or 60 and change like it was out doors.
But the Rangers need a pair, now more than ever, tonight.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490