Game #52 Buchnevich, Zibanejad and Kreider take apart Maple Leafs, Shestyorkin improves to 4-1-0 for Rangers


Pavel Buchnevich celebrates a goal in easily his best game of the season. He finished with a goal and two assists in the Rangers 5-3 win over the defenseless Maple Leafs. AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

David Quinn wanted improved play at five-on-five. He got it in a 5-3 Rangers home win over the defenseless Maple Leafs. In a topsy turvy battle between old Original Six rivals, it was the first line of the Rangers that did in the Leafs, who lost a important game. They remain a point behind idle Florida for third in their division and trail the Flyers by two for the final wildcard.

Toronto’s issues are well documented. Having attended my fifth game of the season, I figured the lack of defense would lead to the Over hitting. I’m not a gambler. But if I was, I would’ve took the Over due to the goal total being seven. That seemed like a good bet. Funny enough, I predicted eight total goals during warm-ups and even nailed the final score. I didn’t pick a winner though because I wasn’t sure who would win. The desperate Leafs or the inconsistent Rangers.

The Maple Leafs were again without starting netminder Frederik Andersen, who sat out with a neck injury. He’s day-to-day. That meant backup Michael Hutchinson got the start. Ironically, all four of his wins have come as a starter. He actually entered play having won his last four starts. Outside of one questionable goal to Pavel Buchnevich that came right after an Auston Matthews goal late in the second period, he played a good game. Hutchinson finished with 30 saves.

Meanwhile, Igor Shestyorkin got the nod for the Rangers. All five of his starts have come at MSG. That’s by design. I thought it was a good test to let the kid see what he could do versus the high flying Leafs. As much as I thought Alex Georgiev would get the start due to his career record against them, this was the right call by Quinn. Shestyorkin is here to play. While he might not as much as he’d like, it’s smart to find out what they have against a good opponent. Even if Toronto wouldn’t know the word defense if it hit them in the logo, they boast plenty of offensive talent.

Any time you can face a skilled team that features Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, it’s a good thing. The Leafs don’t lack for talent with William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Tyson Barrie and injured defenseman Morgan Rielly part of a strong offense. Rasmus Sandin has been playing with Rielly out. He is the future of the Toronto blueline. Just 19, he’ll only get better.

The problem with Toronto is they’re too easy to play against. They might have replaced Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe. But their roster isn’t constructed the right way. As a passionate Maple Leafs fan I spoke with during the game put it, they don’t have enough sandpaper. He said they need a physical forward, a tough defensive defenseman and a better backup goalie. Right on all three accounts. When I mentioned that they probably miss Matt Martin, he agreed. They lack that kind of high character player, who will get the jersey dirty.

He also grinned when I brought up Darcy Tucker. He was a lot of things due to his dirty style. But he was a tough hockey player who had skill to go with his grit and physicality. Ditto for Shayne Corson and Gary Roberts. All three were a big part of those Leafs teams that made good runs that included two Conference Finals. Similar to the ’93 Leafs, they never got over the hump. That ’92-93 roster should’ve reached the Stanley Cup Final. Instead, they lost to the Kings due to a memorable Game Seven from Wayne Gretzky.

That’s what the Toronto history is. Losing heartbreaking series. They were probably better in ’99 than the Sabres. But Buffalo had Dominik Hasek. It was similar in ’02 when the underdog Hurricanes beat them as a Cinderella. Of course, they’ve blown series in gut wrenching fashion to the Bruins. Last year, they led 3-2 in the first round before Boston rallied. As the Leafs fan uttered, they have their number. Yet he still wants another shot at them. First, that gotta make the playoffs.

While it was nice to have a good conversation with an opposing fan, who had a Crazy Eddie Belfour jersey on, the game was entertaining too. In the early going, it was exactly what I expected. It wasn’t more than 66 seconds old and you already had three rushes with the Leafs buzzing on two. It was the high tempo you figured they’d come out with. They can score with anyone. It’s just that they struggle with the other key parts of the game. Defense optional.

The Rangers got an early power play when Zach Hyman went off for a phantom hook on Jacob Trouba. One of those new NHL specials. The Toronto fan didn’t like it. However, that’s what they call. Hyman was aggressive on the forecheck and got his stick in. That’s all it takes. In the old days, that’s play on.

Despite being handed an early gift, the Ranger power play wasn’t good. The top unit didn’t establish much. They were sloppy and turned over pucks for easy clears. After going a perfect three-for-three the other night, they took the collar in two chances.

Shortly following the successive kill, the Leafs took the lead when Tavares rebounded home a dangerous Nylander shot that Shestyorkin made a good stop on. However, the low pointblank shot caromed right to Tavares for an easy put away for his 20th at 7:36. The defensive coverage was lousy.

Before the Toronto contingent could get too comfortable, the Rangers struck back 1:14 later to tie the game. On a sustained forecheck, Tony DeAngelo was given all sorts of time. He patiently waited for Filip Chytil to get position in front before threading a nice pass for a tap in. It was Chytil’s 12th goal and first in eight games since tallying at St. Louis on Jan. 11. Marc Staal picked up a rare point with a secondary helper.

Late in the period, things fell apart for the Leafs quickly. With the game tied, Chris Kreider won a offensive draw back to Mika Zibanejad. He didn’t take long releasing a perfect shot by Hutchinson for a 2-1 lead at 17:18. It was a well executed play.

What happened next was stunning. Off the next face-off at center ice, Zibanejad and Buchnevich sent Kreider in behind the Toronto defense. It took him only six seconds to move in on Hutchinson and go to his patented backhand deke for a sweet finish at 17:24. It was Kreider’s 19th. He missed the last game due to a minor injury. He sure didn’t look rusty. Kreider had another big night registering a goal and assist with a plus-three rating. He’s been dominant since Dec. 8 with 24 points in his last 23 games. It’s sad to think this could be it for Kreider.

The second period was weird. As expected, the Leafs came out desperate. Some good pressure forced Ryan Lindgren to take a cross checking minor penalty 59 seconds in. But the Rangers got the job done on the penalty kill. They got their sticks on pucks and cleared it out.

As play continued, it was strange. Despite constant pressure from Toronto, they couldn’t score on Shestyorkin. He made some good saves. It wasn’t until there was over there minutes left that the Leafs finally got the deficit down to one. On some relentless pressure behind the net, Johnsson was able to get free and center the puck for Matthews, whose low backhand fooled Shestyorkin for his 38th goal. It was a world class play.

But before they could grab the momentum, a turnover alllowed Brady Skjei to find Buchnevich alone in the slot where he skated in and fired a dipping low shot past Hutchinson to restore a two goal lead with 2:30 left in the period. The puck dipped underneath Hutchinson. It gave Buchnevich goals in four of his last five games. He has 11 for the season.

In the third, there wasn’t much going on. To their credit, the Rangers defended well in front of Shestyorkin. When there were close calls, the athletic rookie showed why he’s so highly rated. There were some odd attempts due to deflections in front. He continues to be very composed. I wonder if he’ll get another start on Friday. I expect it to be Georgiev.

A Greg McKegg hooking minor gave the Leafs a late power play with 4:16 remaining. On the man-advantage, Toronto didn’t make the foolish move and pull Hutchinson for a six-on-four. They didn’t give the Rangers a free shot at the empty net like so many other teams do.

It paid dividends when Tavares got the puck over to Matthews for his 39th on a deadly one timer. Marner picked up his 40th assist. The Leafs knew they had a chance of coming back. They got the third goal with 3:28 left.

But on a night they defended well, Buchnevich got the puck over to Greg McKegg, who made certain the game would end. It was just his second goal. Keg Man continues to work hard. It’s nice to see him get rewarded. It was probably the best game of Buchnevich’s Rangers career. He was engaged after his benching and Quinn criticism. He got rewarded for his hard work.

As we headed for the exits, apparently there was some frustration from the Leafs. Hyman fought Jacob Trouba. Ryan Lindgren got matching roughs with Toasted. Where was this battle level during the game?

That’s the Leafs in a nutshell. This was a good win. It gives the Rangers three over the last four with Buffalo coming in on Friday. They should be weary due to it being the second of a back-to-back.

The Rangers went 2-1 against the Maple Leafs. Not shockingly, all three matches saw the teams combine for at least eight goals. Here’s the breakdown:

Dec. 20 Maple Leafs 6 Rangers 3

Dec. 28 Rangers 5 Maple Leafs 4

Feb. 5 Maple Leafs 3 Rangers 5

Unless they fix their issues, the Leafs could actually miss the playoffs. Unfathomable. It also speaks to how competitive and close the East is. I think they’ll probably still get in by the skin of their teeth. If they don’t, when does Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas finally face criticism? This happened after the loss. Cancel those ridiculous Georgiev to Toronto rumors.

As for our Broadway Blueshirts, they are up to 56 points with 30 games left. At the beginning of the season, I predicted them for 85 points. That’s doable. They trail the wildcard by nine points. The playoffs remain a long shot.

The next two games are at 33rd and Eighth Avenue versus the Sabres and Kings. If Georgiev gets Buffalo, does Lundqvist get LA on Sunday? What about Shestyorkin?

I guess we’ll see.

Battle of Hudson Three 🌟

3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, Rangers (19th of season plus 🍎, +3 with 5 shots in 19:51)

2nd 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, Rangers (21st goal plus 🍎, +2 with 6 shots in 20:56)

1st 🌟 Pavel Buchnevich, Rangers (11th goal plus 2 🍎, +4 with 6 shots in 17:11)

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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