By Jim Cerny, BlueshirtsUnited.com
Despite a furious third-period comeback which briefly tied the score, the Rangers dropped a 4-3 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night at the Air Canada Centre in the first of a home-and-home set this week between these two Original Six foes. The rematch takes place Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Trailing 3-1 entering the third period, the Rangers received goals from Rick Nash and Derek Stepan to the tie game nine minutes into the final period of play. But Phil Kessel, who scored twice in the game just like Nash, restored the Maple Leafs lead just 39 seconds after Stepan had tied it, handing the Rangers a bitter road defeat.
It was the first time in 21 games that the Rangers surrendered four goals---and the first in his last 19 starts Henrik Lundqvist had allowed more than three goals in a game. Lundqvist made 24 saves, while Toronto goalie James Reimer finished with 31.
Nash's second goal of the night cut the visitors deficit to 3-2 just 2:50 into the third period. After accepting a pass from defenseman John Moore, Nash burst up left wing, cut into the slot, and whipped his team-high 17th goal of the season past Reimer, giving the Rangers renewed life. With his two-goal performance on Monday, Nash now has seven goals and ten points in his last eight games.
That goal was hugely important not only because it brought the Rangers within one of Toronto, but it stemmed the Maple Leafs strong start to the final period of play. Moments before his score Lundqvist had made a string of big-time saves at the other end, and defenseman Dan Girardi swatted a puck away from behind his goaltender, as well.
Stepan then tied the game one second after a successful Rangers penalty kill at the nine minute mark of the third period. Skating up ice on a 2-on-1 with Darroll Powe, Stepan scored off a left wing snap shot to the far top corner of Reimer's net, tying the game 3-3 with his 14th goal of the season.
But Kessel scored 39 seconds later, left all alone to bury his own rebound past Lundqvist at 9:39 of the third, restoring Toronto's lead.
Earlier in the game Nash put the Rangers on the board at 14:55 of the second period, cutting the Maple Leafs lead at the time to 2-1. Nash powered his way to the net from left wing and jammed a shot on net. Reimer made a pad save, but the puck kicked back over the goal line after deflecting off the skate of Toronto's Jay McClement.
Not long after Nash's first goal, the Maple Leafs scored a crushing goal late in the second period to expand their lead from 2-1 to 3-1, forcing the Rangers to start the final period of play chasing two goals on the road. With Ryan Callahan having taken the first penalty assessed to the Rangers all night at 18:32 of the second period, the Maple Leafs cashed in on their power play chance with 41.2 seconds left to play in the middle stanza when Kessel zipped a left circle shot through a James Van Riemsdyk screen for the clutch score.
The goal was Kessel's first in ten games; and it also marked the first time in 11 straight starts that Lundqvist surrendered more than two goals in the same game.
Toronto had opened the scoring against Lundqvist at the 11:04 mark of the first period. Van Riemsdyk had his slam dunk shot denied by Lundqvist's left pad, but the Maple Leafs forward tucked his own rebound into the cage for his 16th goal of the season.
The Maple Leafs doubled their advantage 11:28 into the second period when defenseman Ryan O'Byrne--in his Leafs debut after being acquired at the trade deadline---scored his second goal of the season off a 2-on-1 rush with Nazem Kadri.
That the Rangers were trailing 2-0 at that point was a bit unfortunate for the visitors. Both Ryan McDonagh and Girardi beat Reimer with shots that hit off a post during the first period before Van Riemsdyk's goal.