BUFFALO – At various points last season, youngsters Jhonas Enroth and Marcus Foligno represented the Sabres’ oh-so-bright future.
Enroth, the rookie goalie that couldn’t lose early on, would someday be the franchise’s regular netminder. Foligno roared into the NHL later in the campaign, instantly becoming a premier power forward.
But they had provided little to the Sabres this lost season prior to their difference-making performances in Tuesday’s 3-1 triumph over the New York Rangers.
Enroth couldn’t break an epic slump that started 16 months ago, going 16 appearances without a win. Foligno, meanwhile, had one goal in 25 games this season.
For one night at least, they played like stars again, helping the Sabres break a four-game losing skid (0-2-2) before a capacity crowd of 19,070 fans inside the First Niagara Center.
Enroth, a surprise starter with a sinus infection relegating Ryan Miller to backup duty, dazzled, making 32 saves in his first win since Nov. 26, 2011.
“Of course it felt good,” said Enroth, who found out he would get his second start in three games Tuesday morning. “I got a lot of frustration out. I’ve been playing pretty well even though I lost a couple games there in a row.”
Foligno also busted his long slump, scoring twice – the tying goal and the insurance score – his first tallies since Jan. 27, a 21-game stretch. Thomas Vanek scored the winner on a breakaway 12:40 into the second period.
“It was huge,” Foligno said about his performance. “The first goal of the season in front of the fans was overdue. … I needed to be better. Obviously, I was in a little bit of a slump.”
Enroth had been building toward a victory. On Thursday, his first start since Feb. 5, the Swede played dynamically in New Jersey before cramps forced him out of the 3-2 shootout loss.
He carried that into Tuesday, getting better as the game went on. Maybe more hydration helped. Enroth joked too much coffee Thursday led to his early exit.
“He made some big saves for us,” interim Sabres coach Ron Rolston said. “You could just see early in the game he was tracking things really well, not giving up a lot in terms of rebound-wise, he was making pucks stick to him. (I’m) just real happy for him. To see him come back and have a big smile is really gratifying.”
With the Sabres clinging to a one-goal lead, Enroth’s glove stymied Michael Del Zotto midway through the third period, one of 18 saves he made in the final 20 minutes.
“I felt very confident,” Enroth said about the third period. “I thought I controlled every shot and didn’t give up any bad rebounds.”
It was expected Enroth would be rewarded another start soon, perhaps this weekend.
“This morning after the meeting Ryan told me he wasn’t feeling too good,” Enroth said. “He told me to get ready. Right before the skate Ron told me I was starting.”
Enroth hadn’t even started a home game since Jan. 7, 2012.
Tuesday, only his fifth appearance and fourth start this season, was extra special because Enroth defeated his idol, Rangers goalie and fellow Swede Henrik Lundqvist.
“That’s something special to me to beat him here,” Enroth said. “It’s something I’m going to remember forever.”
He had also beaten Lundqvist on March 30, 2011.
Enroth, who only allowed a short-handed goal to Derek Stepan, couldn’t have won Thursday without Foligno’s help.
The 21-year-old scored at the net – a prime location for his 6-foot-3 frame – 5:35 into the second period and the 11:48 into the third.
Foligno was also a physical presence from the get-go, thumping Rangers throughout.
“The goals that he got tonight are the goals that he’s going to continue to get,” Rolston said. “He’s staying above the goal line, at the net. … All game long I thought he tracked pucks well and hunted pucks down and was around the play and physical.”
Don’t count Rangers coach John Tortorella among those impressed by the Sabres.
“No, I don’t think the Sabres are a hungry team, I thought we stunk,” Tortorella said. “And I’m not going to give Buffalo any credit. … Well, I will give their third line credit. They outplayed our top players. That can’t happen. I couldn’t be more disgusted or disappointed with the way our top guys played, the way we handled ourselves through it. That team was ripe to be beaten, and we simply did not play the way we’re supposed to play.
“I don’t know what to tell you. Did you ask (the players)? Did you ask them any questions? I don’t know why I always have to answer these questions. You should ask them occasionally about what happened.”
He added: “I’m not going to pick it apart. We (stunk), and we (stunk) at a time we can’t (stink). We have to get it straightened out. I don’t know what else to tell you.”