NEW YORK — Every once in a while, the youth and inexperience of the Buffalo Sabres catches someone off-guard. It happened to Henrik Tallinder on Thursday.
The veteran defenseman was reminiscing about the fun of playoff hockey, something the New York Rangers were getting ready to enjoy down the hallway in Madison Square Garden.
“The fun hockey is the playoff hockey. Everyone knows ...” Tallinder said before halting, looking around the dressing room and realizing his mistake. “Well, maybe not everyone in here. Maybe not a lot of guys in here know how it is.”
Indeed, the playoffs are a foreign concept to many Sabres. Six guys in the lineup for the 2-1 loss to the Rangers have never appeared in a postseason game, and another half-dozen have played eight or fewer. Those who have had the pleasure know that as hard as this season has been for Buffalo, it’ll get harder when opponents start gearing up for their shot at the Stanley Cup.
“Now is the time when the fun starts,” Tallinder said. “It’s a bad situation we’re in.
“It’s going to be a lot of years rebuilding this organization. That’s what I think, but who knows? Maybe they can pull something out of this one and feel good about themselves again.”
They didn’t feel good about the outcome Thursday. Rick Nash, left open because of a slow line change, buried a cross-ice pass with 1:42 left to give the Rangers the only lead they needed. The Sabres fell to 2-15-1 in the last 18 games despite a 28-save performance by goalie Matt Hackett.
“I thought today was my best game since I’ve been here. I felt relaxed and confident in net,” said Hackett, who dropped to 1-5-1 despite the effort. “It’s really frustrating. I want to get one for the boys, and I can’t find a way right now.”
Hackett kept the Sabres in the game during a second period that was as one-sided as they come – with the huge exception of the scoreboard. New York out shot the Sabres, 18-1, but both teams scored once to enter the final period knotted at 1-1.
“You feel bad for a guy like Hack,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “He kept us in it.”
Drew Stafford, back after missing four games with an injury, gave the Sabres a perfect shooting percentage when he tipped Weber’s point shot past Henrik Lundqvist with 9:06 gone in the second.
The goal invigorated the sluggish Rangers, who finally solved Hackett on their 27th shot of the game. It was also a rocket off a cross-ice pass, as Benoit Pouliot fired from the left faceoff dot with just 30.1 seconds left.
While the season has been forgettable, Tallinder is relishing the moments. The 35-year-old returned to the lineup after a four-game injury absence.
“It’s just trying to finish what you started,” he said. “You never like to be sitting out or being hurt. I’m just happy that my body feels healthy again.”
The time of the sidelines confirmed what Tallinder already knew: He’s not done with the sport. The 12-year veteran says there will be a 13th season somewhere.
“I just want to have fun and play,” he said. “I love hockey more than ever almost, even though it’s been a rough year. But when you get older you learn to kind of appreciate what you have. This is what I love to do, and I’m going to keep playing as long as I can.”
It’s not clear where the pending unrestricted free agent will play. He’s willing to skate in his native Sweden, but he’d rather be in the NHL. Odds are against a return to the Sabres, though they do need mentors for their young defense.
“Sometimes you learn more from your peers, and if you have a good veteran guy back there like a Tallinder, it could help,” coach Ted Nolan said. “Hank’s coming toward the latter part of his career, and some of the knowledge that he gained over those years is very valuable. Now we have a couple young defensemen with us, and they can definitely learn from his experience.”