NEW YORK – It’s been impossible to count the Rangers out of any game this season, with their nine comeback wins tied for most in the NHL.
But even for the team that has arguably been the league’s best through the first two months, the well runs dry some nights.
That was the case in Tuesday’s 7-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden, with the Blueshirts digging themselves in too big a hole to claw their way out of.
The chinks in New York’s armor have been more noticeable of late, with a shaky first period ultimately costing them against one of the NHL’s most high-powered attacks. The Rangers responded to the slow start with a much better effort in the second period, pulling back to within one by the time the third began. But they eventually ran out of steam.
The result was their third loss in their last four games, this coming after a scorching-hot start that saw them win 18 of their first 23.
Igor Shesterkin loses third start in a row
The first period had the same track-meet feel we’ve seen a few times in the last couple weeks. The Rangers were loose in a number of areas, leading to four Toronto goals in a span of 11:49.
The first came after a delayed penalty called on Nick Bonino, with the Maple Leafs taking advantage of the six-on-five situation. William Nylander weaved through the center of the defense before dishing to Auston Matthews for the finish 3:52 into the game.
That was yet another example of opposing teams attacking off the rush, which has been a primary weakness for the Rangers this past month. But Toronto found other ways to make them pay, as well.
Goal No. 2 came just 1:15 later on a very low-danger scoring opportunity. It began with a faceoff win from Leafs forward Max Domi and ended with a long shot from Connor Timmons near the blue line. Goalie Igor Shesterkin couldn’t locate the puck in time, which may have resulted from his own defenseman, Braden Schneider, cutting through his line of vision.
A Blake Wheeler goal cut the Rangers’ deficit to 2-1 at the 5:42 mark, but Toronto would add a couple more quick-hitters before the period was through.
Calle Jarnkrok, who was left unchecked in front of the New York net, jumped on a rebound that came off Shesterkin’s left pad for the Leafs’ third goal. And 21 seconds later, Matthews connected with Mitch Marner off the rush to make it 4-1.
Shesterkin was far from the only culprit in a period where very little went the Rangers’ way − the team in front of him was outshot, 11-4 − but there’s no question that he hasn’t been playing up to his usual standards.
The former Vezina Trophy winner has now allowed four goals or more in each of his last three starts − all losses − with a save percentage no better than .862 in any of those appearances. On Tuesday, he allowed six goals on 29 shots he faced.
Prior to the game, head coach Peter Laviolette defended his No. 1 netminder.
“What we do in front of him certainly factors in,” he said. “For instance, our team last game (Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings, with Jonathan Quick in net), I think we gave up nine or 10 scoring chances throughout the entire game. It was tight. We played hard. We did the right things, and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance of winning and being successful, regardless of talking about a certain position. I think there’s things that we can do better in our last couple games that (Shesterkin) was in net.”
Comeback falls short
Shesterkin steadied as the game went on, as did the Rangers.
They scored twice in the final 3:30 of the second period to cut their deficit down to one goal, 4-3.
Mika Zibanejad blasted a one-timer on a power-play feed from Artemi Panarin for his eighth goal of the season, followed by Zibanejad setting up Wheeler’s second goal of the game − a top-shelf wrister off the rush that ignited the MSG crowd.
Suddenly, the Blueshirts were back within striking distance. But weak interference call on Erik Gustafsson early in the third period led to a critical insurance goal for the Maple Leafs.
They quickly cashed in on the ensuing power play, with Marner tipping a shot from Morgan Rielly for his second goal of the night. That made it 5-3 Toronto, with the Rangers unable to complete the comeback this time around.
Matthews finished off the Leafs’ win with his second goal of the game − and 21st of the season − with 2:49 to play.