Reaching the playoffs is a mere formality for the New York Rangers, and their next two games might present them with that chance. They're more concerned with avoiding their longest losing streak since December.
The Rangers look to shake out of this funk and continue their domination of the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
New York (43-25-9) has made the playoffs the last five seasons, reaching the Eastern Conference finals three times and the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. The Rangers also won last season's Presidents' Trophy, so expectations for 2015-16 were much greater than a return to the postseason.
The Rangers, though, wasted an opportunity to clinch that spot Thursday, losing 4-3 at Carolina, four nights after an overtime defeat to Pittsburgh. They haven't lost three games in a row since Dec. 17-20.
With five games left, New York's latest crack at gaining a berth includes a win in regulation or overtime combined with a Detroit loss at Toronto. If that doesn't suffice for the Rangers, their next opportunity comes Monday at last-place Columbus.
They're not looking that far ahead and don't seem to be troubled by trailing the Penguins by one point for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
"Really, myself and the coaching staff and the whole group are focused on (Saturday's) game," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We're definitely aware that we didn't play a full 60 minutes (Thursday).
"I'd say to a man, everybody wants to be better."
That's not usually a problem against Buffalo (32-35-11), which is missing the playoffs for a fifth straight season. The Rangers have won nine straight meetings for their longest active streak against any opponent. They scored the first three goals in a 4-2 road victory March 8 after netting three unanswered in a 6-3 win at home Jan. 25.
Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller scored in each game, while Derick Brassard totaled three with four assists to give him 14 points in eight meetings.
Zuccarello, who added two assists in last month's matchup, has 11 points over his past nine games with Buffalo. He enters this one with five points in five games after scoring his career-high 25th tally Thursday.
While Zuccarello is one point short of his personal-best of 59 from 2013-14, Miller is having a career year with 21 goals and as many assists.
Henrik Lundqvist will likely be back in net, and he has a 1.67 goals-against average while winning six straight starts against Buffalo. He hasn't been very sharp over his last nine games, compiling a 3.38 GAA while getting pulled twice.
The Sabres have dropped four of five on the road, but they scored the first three goals of Thursday's 4-1 home win over the Maple Leafs.
Ryan O'Reilly leads Buffalo with 56 points and his assist Thursday came on one of older brother Cal O'Reilly's career-high two goals.
"For them giving me a chance to play with (Ryan), it's pretty special for us," said Cal O'Reilly, who was recalled from the minors in February. "There was a time where I didn't know I'd get the opportunity again, and I'm very fortunate the Sabres here gave me a chance to play."
Jack Eichel has a team-high 23 goals while his 51 points are the most by a Sabres rookie since Derek Plante had 56 in 1993-94. Eichel has three points in two meetings with New York.