BUFFALO - Rangers coach John Tortorella didn't bother to call a timeout after Jochen Hecht scored to give the Buffalo Sabres a one-goal lead at 5:17 of the second period last night. He simply yanked Henrik Lundqvist and inserted backup Alex Auld. "He had to come out,'' Tortorella said.

Symbolically, that may have started pulling the plug on the Rangers' frantic, last-ditch bid for the playoffs.

At the other end, Ryan Miller was making big saves. Miller robbed Marian Gaborik, sliding to his right and deflecting a shot with his blocker at 9:20. A goal there would have tied the score and given the Rangers some wiggle room as the season winds down.

Instead, as the Rangers continued to allow odd-man rushes to the speedy Sabres, Toni Lydman's wrister beat Auld, who hadn't played since March 10 - 13 games ago - and boosted the lead to two goals at 13:22 of the second period in a game that Buffalo would win, 5-2. It snapped the Blueshirts' six-game run in which they collected 11 points. In the process, the Sabres captured the Northeast Division.

With three games to play, the Rangers' window of opportunity closed even more. The Rangers remain in ninth place with 82 points, three behind the eighth-place Bruins for the final playoff spot. The sixth-place Canadiens have 87 points and the Flyers have 86. The Rangers face a crucial game Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Leafs before closing out the regular season with a home-and-home Friday and Sunday against the Flyers.

Perhaps Lundqvist was pulled to rest him for Wednesday night, or maybe Tortorella was trying to provide a spark for his team that was being outskated.

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"I'm not going to dissect the decision,'' Tortorella said. "He had to come out.''

Lundqvist, who was pulled for the fifth time this season after allowing three goals on 16 shots, said: "I am surprised. At the same time, it's up to John, I just have to deal with it.''

Lundqvist added that the Rangers "knew coming in that [the Sabres] were a really good skating team and their 'D' step up and join the rush. I tried to play my best but they were making some good plays there, and we had some problems coming back.''

"It's all about those rushes," Brandon Dubinsky said. "We have to make sure we beat them back up the ice . . . It's obviously a tough loss but we've got to come back and get excited to come home and play at the Garden."

Ryan Callahan, seeing his first action since aggravating a left knee injury against the Devils on March 25 and missing the next four games, played only 12:54 and the Sabres bottled up the Gaborik-Erik Christensen-Dubinsky line, limiting them to five shots.

"We're not in a position to give away points," Vinny Prospal said. "We had opportunities; we just never followed up to the net."

The Rangers had the early lead. Brandon Prust beat Miller with his third goal in three games at 6:57. Derek Roy zinged one under the crossbar on a power play at 9:57 to square the game at 1. Drew Stafford, coming down the right side on a slow-developing two-on-one held the puck and found an opening between Lundqvist's pads at 14:56.

With Tyler Ellis off for delay of game at 16:44, P.A. Parenteau hustled behind Miller to poke in Dan Girardi's slapper from the point that had trickled in the crease behind the Sabres goalie with 1:42 left in the period, tying it at 2. But any momentum would fade, just like the Rangers.