Rangers finally get a re-Leaf in big 5-2 win


The victorious and happier Rangers celebrate with winning netminder Henrik Lundqvist after a badly needed 5-2 victory at Toronto in which Lundqvist made 23 saves to end a three-game losing streak during an awful stretch. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

The Rangers finally ended a miserable three-game losing streak by going into Toronto and coming away with a well earned 5-2 win over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. It was a big win that allowed them to smile again and enjoy playing the game. Especially for Henrik Lundqvist, who was relieved after making 23 saves while allowing just two goals while speaking to MSG’s John Giannone while wearing the Broadway Hat.

Their NHL best 16th road win came at a good time. It ended a nightmarish three-game run in which Lundqvist allowed 16 goals in his last three appearances. This was more like it. He made some big saves including his best to deny Auston Matthews after he blew past Dan Girardi for a backhand point blank. Neither Lundqvist or a more focused defense buckled. Instead, they played inspired after expressing frustration over Tuesday’s 7-6 home loss to the Stars.

One welcome change was Lundqvist not allowing an early goal. Instead, it was the Rangers who got the first goal on a well constructed play. It was started by Chris Kreider when he worked the puck from behind the net to Mats Zuccarello in the corner. Zuccarello won a battle and came out and centered for a pinching Brady Skjei, who scored his second NHL goal at 6:42.

Even though they played much better by dictating the play with puck possession and out-shooting the Leafs 19-9, it wasn’t perfect. The Leafs were able to tie it back up 3:34 later on a play started by James van Riemsdyk. Working the puck to Mitch Marner, the other big Leafs rookie came off the wall and fired a centering feed which deflected off Kevin Klein right to a wide open Tyler Bozak, who took advantage to finish his 11th past Lundqvist at 10:16. They caught the Rangers in a change with Brandon Pirri too late.

Rather than let down as they had recently, the Rangers stuck with it. Sizzling rookie Pavel Buchnevich remained hot when he was able to get a stick on a loose puck that he kicked to steer it in past Frederik Andersen for a 2-1 lead 4:28 later from Rick Nash and Skjei. Both Nash and Buchnevich were in front with the puck hopping off Nash to Buchnevich, whose kick of the puck merited a review. But it was concluded that he did manage to get his stick on it for his sixth. That gave him six points (2-4-6) in four games since returning. Dating back to Nov. 5, he has an eight-game point streak over which he has totaled 12 points (6-6-12). Where would he be in the rookie scoring race if he didn’t miss significant time?

Leading by one entering the second, the Blueshirts continued to apply the pressure. They kept getting good shots and quality chances on Andersen, who did a stellar job keeping his team in it. He finished with 36 saves. But he wasn’t able to prevent J.T. Miller from burying his 15th on a nifty cross-ice feed from buddy Kevin Hayes that made it 3-1 at 9:02 of the second. Prior to the goal, Adam Clendening got caught at the Toronto blue line leading to a dangerous Marner bid. But he hustled back to at least force Marner to miss wide preventing him from tying it up.

Instead, Clendening started the play the other way with Miller working a give-and-go with Hayes and then blistering his 15th from the right circle on a nice one-time blast upstairs. That was a pivotal play. It went from possibly 2-2 to 3-1.

The Leafs handed the Rangers opportunities to increase the margin. Consecutive minor penalties on Frank Corrado gave them power plays. Instead of cashing in, they allowed just their second shorthanded goal to Zach Hyman. With Corrado back in the box for his second penalty, Clendening lost his concentration when he allowed an attacking Hyman to steal the puck and score unassisted making it 3-2 with 3:58 remaining. It was a really bad play by Clendening. A mental lapse which made it a one-goal game after two.

Despite the Rangers basically doubling up the Leafs in shots by a wide 35-18 margin, they had to play a good third to come out with the victory. Playing a more defensive oriented patient style, they slowed down the Leafs to a crawl. They didn’t get much. At one point, the shots were still only 3-2 Toronto with nearly half the third gone.

Matt Martin sucked Oscar Lindberg into a bad tripping penalty in which the former Islander helped it along by taking a dive. Lundqvist protested but the refs weren’t listening. But on a night former Leaf Michael Grabner had been dangerous, he finally beat his former team on what else but a clean breakaway for a crushing shorthanded goal that made it 4-2 with 5:03 left. The play was made possible by Hayes, who took a Nick Holden feed and made a perfect lead pass for Grabner, who got behind the Toronto D. He turned on the jets and beat Andersen with his 20th of the season. His third career 20-goal year and first since netting 20 with the Islanders in ’11-12 following a career best 34 in ’10-11.

Grabner has been a huge difference maker for this team. After going two consecutive seasons without reaching double digits in goals, here he is back with 21 in only 45 games played with the Rangers. The 29-year old Austrian has always had great breakaway speed. But it’s really been a perfect fit under Alain Vigneault in a more offensive minded system where he can play with more skilled players. There is no reason for the coach to ever split up Grabner, Hayes and Miller, who as a third line have great chemistry and are lethal shorthanded. Grabner’s shorthanded goal was the first of this season and 13th of his career. The Rangers are tied now with Calgary for the most shorthanded goals (7) this season.

With Toronto pulling Andersen with under three minutes left, it was Grabner again who stole the puck at the red line and scored into an open net for his team-leading 21st for the final margin.

An important victory for the Rangers. One in which they defended better. Girardi was a standout making several key defensive plays. He blocked five shots and played a good game. They all played better. Lundqvist did the rest stopping 23 of 25 to get his 19th win of the year.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Brady Skjei, NYR (goal-2nd, assist, 6 attempts, +3 in 21 shifts-15:29)

2nd  Star-Kevin Hayes, NYR (2 assists, 6 shots, +2 in 25 shifts-14:13)

1st Star-Michael Grabner, NYR (2 goals including big shorthanded goal-20th, 21st, 5 shots, 8 attempts, 3 takeaways, +3 in 25 shifts-14:00)

Notes: Rangers finished with 34 hits led by Holden’s game-high eight. The Leafs had 21. … Martin tried to start something with Clendening. Both went off for slashes. You have to wonder what the heck Martin’s thinking. He really is a clown. … In a reverse, it was Hayes who barely saw any power play time with only 10 seconds while Miller received 3:16. … Jimmy Vesey remained mostly on the fourth line and received no power play shifts. He’s without a point in seven straight and is a minus-nine. … Interestingly, Matthews was held off the score sheet and went minus-three with Nazem Kadri. … Key Stat: Blocked shots NYR-18 (Girardi 5, Klein 4) TOR-9. … Face-offs went in favor of the Blueshirts 35-28 with Mika Zibanejad going 14-and-7. Frederik Gauthier went 9-and-5 for the Leafs.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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