BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Alexis Lafreniere became accustomed to being patient last year, when the playmaking forward from Quebec had to wait until October to be selected with the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft by the New York Rangers.
Another long wait ended Thursday for Lafreniere, who scored his first career goal 2:47 into overtime to secure a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
“It’s pretty crazy. Overtime, game-winning goal, it was really special,” Lafreniere said. “I’ll never forget this moment, for sure.”
The goal was historic as well, as he became the first No. 1 pick to score his first goal in OT.
It happened in a game the Rangers squandered two one-goal leads, snapped an 0-3-1 skid, and Lafreniere was robbed of a goal in the opening minute of the third period. Set up alone at the left post, Lafreniere’s shot was stopped when Linus Ullmark kicked out his right pad.
Rangers coach David Quinn continued to be impressed by the 19-year-old forward’s persistence by noting how Lafreniere returned to the bench laughing after being stopped.
“He was laughing about it. The thing I loved about him is he never got frustrated,” Quinn said, referring to Lafreniere’s drought.
Quinn was confident Lafreniere was ready for the moment, knowing what he went through last year following a junior season in which he became the first to win consecutive Quebec Major Junior Hockey League MVP honors since Sidney Crosby in 2004 and ’05.
Aside from the draft being delayed four months because of the coronavirus pandemic, the event was also held remotely. That led to Lafreniere watching TV from his living room rather than taking the stage in his hometown of Montreal, where the draft was supposed to take place.
“He shakes it off, is not bothered by it,” Quinn said. “I don’t care if he’s the first pick or the 271st pick, he’s a kid you want to be around. For him to get his first goal in that moment, under that situation, under those circumstances, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Artemi Panarin had a goal and set up Ryan Strome’s game-opening goal. Igor Shesterkin stopped 23 shots for his first win since taking over the starting duties following Henrik Lunqvist’s offseason departure.
Sam Reinhart had a goal and assist and Jack Eichel also scored for Buffalo, which dropped to 3-3-2. Linus Ullmark finished with 36 saves in a game the Sabres were outshot 24-9 through two periods and 39-25 overall.
“That’s about as bad as we’ve played this year,” Eichel said. “We find a way to get a point, thankfully, from good goaltending and our penalty kill coming up big. But we’ve got to find a way to play a lot better than that.”
Lafreniere’s goal came after Eichel turned the puck over in his own zone. Colin Blackwell collected the loose puck and drove up the right side before flipping a pass through the middle to Lafreniere, who one-timed the puck inside the near post.
“Nice pass by Blacky, and I had an open net,” said Lafreniere, who didn’t feel any additional pressure being on the ice for the extra frame. “I thought I was playing a good game, so I was ready. I took my chance and it went in. It was pretty fun.”
The Sabres rallied to earn a point in a game they overcame two one-goal deficits, with Reinhart tying the game at 2 by tipping in Victor Olofsson’s pass from the right circle five minutes into the third period. It came on the power play, 20 seconds after Ryan Lindgren was penalized for cross-checking Kyle Okposo into the end boards of the Rangers zone.
Okposo briefly went up the tunnel before returning to the bench after appearing to hurt his left ankle.
Strome did not return late in the game after sustaining what Quinn called a lower body injury. “We think he’ll be fine,” the coach said.
Sabres coach Ralph Krueger’s objective in a shortened season is making sure Buffalo remains in the playoff hunt through 36 games and then see how the final 20 shake out.
“That’s our definite No. 1 goal is to get more than halfway into the season right in the middle of everything and then be one of the teams that rises to the top,” Krueger said Thursday morning. “We don’t expect to necessarily rise there right off the hop.”
Krueger’s more comfortable with the Sabres dealing with early season challenges, such as their 1-3 start, as opposed to last season when Buffalo opened with a 9-2-2 before fading to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season.
“I really felt everything came way too easy for us early,” he said.
Rangers: D Jack Johnson is out with a groin injury, which Quinn termed short term. He was replaced by Brendan Smith, who sat out two of the past three games.
Sabres: D Henri Jokiharju missed his second straight game with an undisclosed injury. C Tage Thompson was a healthy scratch for a third-consecutive game.
Rangers: Two-game homestand against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday and Monday.
Sabres: Two-game homestand against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday and Sunday.
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