BUFFALO – Robin Lehner spoke calmly and passionately. Of course, the goalie said, he wanted to stay in the Sabres’ 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers instead of getting yanked.
Despite allowing three goals in barely 26 minutes of action Tuesday, the fiery Lehner believes he was playing well enough “to keep fighting to the end and be a part of a turnaround.”
“I’m a competitor,” Lehner said. “I want to stay in there and keep going.”
Lehner never got his chance. To spark his team, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma yanked his No. 1 netminder for the second time this season.
“We need a change in our game,” Bylsma said.
The move worked. With Chad Johnson backstopping them, the Sabres trailed 3-2 by the end of the period thanks to goals from Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson. Then they throttled the Rangers during a wild third period, pumping 19 of their 36 shots on goalie Antti Raanta, who subbed for injured starter Henrik Lundqvist.
“I thought one of our hardest-fought games from our team in that last 33 minutes,” Bylsma said.
When the Sabres went on the power play in the waning minutes, it felt like they would knot the contest.
“Every opportunity to come back and tie that one up,” Bylsma said.
J.T. Miller’s empty-netter minutes later secured the Rangers’ ninth straight win against the Sabres dating back to April 13, 2013.
“We got a 3-0 lead but then we took the (foot) off the gas and gave them the momentum,” Raanta said.
At this stage, 67 games into another lost season, the Sabres will grab some moral victories from their 23rd home loss (12-18-5).
“We did a lot of good things, a lot to take out of it,” said Reinhart, who converted Jack Eichel’s pass at 10:12. “They’re one of the best teams in the league. Give them credit for holding on.”
Clearly, the Sabres have developed a mental toughness under Bylsma. While they often start games poorly, especially at home, they regularly roar back.
A night earlier in Toronto, they battled back from an early 2-0 deficit and won a 4-3 shootout. On Tuesday before a noisy bipartisan crowd of 18,651 fans inside the First Niagara Center, they nearly knocked off one of the NHL’s best teams.
“I thought really the fight in our club tonight was outstanding,” Bylsma said. “We brought it.”
Bylsma also said the Sabres brought it early on.
“We came out energized there, carried the play,” he said.
Still, they fell behind at 4:38 after Derick Brassard’s breakaway goal.
“I felt like I came back, made some good saves,” Lehner said. “I think we played really well.”
Mats Zuccarello scored easily between Lehner’s pads beside the net 6:05 into the second period.
That goal, Bylsma said, Lehner should’ve stopped. Lehner said he was trying to protect the backdoor play.
“It wasn’t a good one,” Bylsma said.
After Jesper Fast beat a screened Lehner, Bylsma pulled him for the second time this season.
“I don’t want to go off,” Lehner said. “It’s his decision. I don’t agree with it, but he’s the boss.”
He added: “One of those games. I didn’t feel that bad. They’re a good team over there, and they take advantage of their chances.”
Bylsma likes Lehner’s anger.
“I would expect him to say that and to want to do that,” he said. “I expect him to be upset about having to leave the game at that point in time.”
Larsson, a colossal disappointment most of the season, has three goals in four games after scoring three times in his first 57 appearances.
Reinhart has 19 goals and a career-long three-game point streak. Eichel, meanwhile, has a career-best four-game streak.