BUFFALO -- The collar just got a little tighter for the goal-starved Rangers.
In a game that could have put some breathing room between the Blueshirts and the Sabres, the Rangers inexplicably wheezed. For the first 40 minutes -- a span that coach John Tortorella called "unacceptable" -- the Sabres were quicker and more desperate, scored a goal and then locked it down in the third period for a 1-0 win Wednesday night that sent the Rangers tumbling into eighth place, just three points out of ninth.
Ninth-place Carolina beat Montreal, 5-2, which means four teams are battling for the final three Eastern Conference playoff spots with just more than a week left in the regular season.
The Rangers appeared to have dodged a bullet when Henrik Lundqvist, the team's most valuable asset, skated to the bench after the second period flexing his right leg. Lundqvist made a save on Chris Butler, whose shot hit the kneeling goalie above the right knee. He returned for the third period and said afterward that he was "under orders from upstairs" not to discuss the injury. He admitted that he had treatment and "my goal is to play" against the Islanders Thursday night.
Nonetheless, the loss was a stunning misstep for the Rangers, who have just three goals in four games and played, according to Tortorella "like it was Game 25 instead of Game 77."
Although they are tied with the Sabres with 87 points, they are in eighth because the first playoff tiebreaker is wins after shootout wins are subtracted. Montreal, with 89 points, is in sixth, and has four games to play. The Rangers, Sabres and Hurricanes, who have 84 points, each have five games.
Just before the game, the Rangers appeared to catch a break when Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was scratched with an upper-body injury. But rookie Jhonas Enroth, playing in just his 10th game, had 23 saves for his first NHL shutout.
"We didn't treat it like a playoff game for the first 40 minutes," Brandon Dubinsky said. "We've shown we're capable of scoring goals so we're not going to get down on ourselves. We have to put this behind us and have a good start on the Island."
The lone goal came in the second period. After Marc Staal dropped Tim Connolly and was sent off for interference, Connolly, on a power-play rush, fired from the left circle and the puck zipped over Lundqvist's right shoulder at 5:28. "He beat me fair and square," Lundqvist said. "It was a bomb."
In the scoreless first period, Artem Anisimov's putback of Dubinsky's shot with 2:02 left was waved off after referee Chris Rooney ruled that Ryan Callahan, tangled in the crease with Andrej Sekera, interfered with Enroth. "I was pretty upset about it," Dubinsky said. Tortorella and Callahan said it was the right call.
The Sabres had more jump early, outshooting the Rangers 11-2 midway through the first period before the Blueshirts' forechecking started to pen the Sabres in. "We couldn't really generate anything," Staal said, "and our shots were mostly from the outside." Which is where the Rangers will be in April without finding the net more often.