Since the lockout in 2004-05, the Rangers had never been under .500 this deep in the season. Until now.
With the Rangers and Sabres tied at 2 midway through the second period and with the Blueshirts on a power play that had been successful twice, the tide turned last night at Madison Square Garden, as it has so many times this season.
After a clearing chip by defenseman Henrik Tallinder that bounced past Ales Kotalik, Patrick Kaleta scored his second goal of the game, wiring a shorthanded breakaway shot over Henrik Lundqvist's glove for the winner in the Sabres' 3-2 victory.
The Rangers, 14-15-2 and with one win in the last seven games, could not respond. "Our power play was working early, and you get one scored on you like that with the way we are struggling to be consistent offensively," coach John Tortorella said, "it's just a kick in the teeth."
The Rangers had scored a total of only two goals in losses to Detroit and Chicago, but their dormant power play (1-for-16) clicked twice in the first period. Then it fizzled in the next four chances, including a golden opportunity after Tim Connolly tripped Marian Gaborik at 14:52 of the third period.
Instead of playing desperate, the Rangers - with Chris Drury at the left point instead of Kotalik - passed the puck around the perimeter as the frustrated home crowd hooted derisively. They never forced Ryan Miller (36 saves) to make a stop.
"I thought our PP early on was getting shots on net and we had guys crashing there," said Ryan Callahan, who scored on the first power play after he forechecked Tallinder behind the net, drifted alone in front and beat Miller high on a nifty feed from Gaborik to tie it at 1 at 10:22. "Late in the third, we need to start to throw more pucks at Miller and try to get a dirty goal."
Or any kind of goal.
Gaborik had given the Rangers a 2-1 edge with his 22nd goal of the season at 12:17, picking the far side of the net after stickhandling into the left circle during a 4-3 advantage. But the lead melted in less than three minutes.
Kaleta, who took a run at defenseman Paul Mara here in February 2008 with a hit that shelved Mara for 12 games after facial surgery, swiped the puck past Lundqvist while falling across the goalmouth at 14:28. Try as they might, the Rangers couldn't rally.
"We just need to make one play, an offensive play," said Tortorella, whose troops have scored two or fewer goals in 15 of the last 19 games. "We're stuck at 2."
After Kaleta's goal - only the second shorthander surrendered by the Rangers this season - the Sabres, who were playing their third game in four nights and lead the Northeast Division at 19-9-2, were cautious in the third period.
"They sit back a little bit and play a little bit of a trap, and they played it well," said Callahan, whose goal was his sixth of the season and second of the week against Buffalo, which lost to the Rangers, 2-1, a week earlier.
"The first period was a strong one," Wade Redden said, "but at the end of the night, we are sitting here looking at a tight game and a loss. You can say you are close, right there, but at the end of the night, there is something we have to do a little more to get the job done."