Strong push comes up just short for Rangers in playoff style loss to Maple Leafs, Strome calls out face-offs

Sometimes, there are games you lose that you can learn from. That’s precisely what the Rangers should take out of a hard fought 2-1 loss to a very good Maple Leafs in Toronto.

In coming up just short in their comeback attempt, the Blueshirts had a four-game winning streak snapped. Even though it’s a frustrating loss considering the chances they had late, there are positives from this game. One in which both Ryan Strome and coach Gerard Gallant talked about the kind of game it was. Playoff caliber.

“I think if we played like we did in the third the whole time, we would’ve given ourselves a better chance,” analyzed Strome following the loss. “But I don’t think we were too bad. … I thought we played hard, we did a lot of good things. I don’t think we gave them too, too much.”

Although Strome was correct to call attention to the lost face-offs in the postgame highlighted above, he did acknowledge that it was a good game. It was much closer fought than the previous meeting which Igor Shesterkin stole by making 40 saves. Something Gallant liked. Of course, they’ll want to improve on face-offs. The Leafs dominated them by winning a ridiculous 80 pert of draws (37 to 9). That’s not a misprint.

“Good game, good hockey game,” Gallant said afterwards. “Pushed at the end, tried to get the tie. We had two or three good chances. Fell a little bit short, but we came in here last time and got outplayed bad. Tonight, it was a pretty even game.”

Despite that insane edge, Gallant focused on the way his team played. They sure got after Toronto in an entertaining third period. Trailing by two on a pair of Morgan Rielly goals including one on a rare power play (only two in the game), the Rangers turned it on. After being held to 14 shots in the first two periods, they matched that total in a hectic third.

Leading the way was the newly minted third line. For a second consecutive game, Filip Chytil was in the middle between Alexis Lafreniere and the suddenly emerging Julien Gauthier. Their ability to get pucks deep and forecheck created momentum. Following scoring his first goal the other night, Gauthier attempted nine shots with five reaching Leafs’ starter Jack Campbell. He was front and center.

A good shift from that line gave the Rangers momentum. Having not been able to crack a stingy Leafs’ defense, finally they did thanks to a smart play from Strome. On a forecheck with Kaapo Kakko, Strome wisely threw a shot at Campbell from a tough angle. Unable to control it, the rebound came right to fourth liner Dryden Hunt, who buried it for his first goal as a Ranger. It was a nice reward for a hard-working player. He got plenty of love at the bench including from Chris Kreider.

Now trailing by one with 16:30 left, the Blueshirts picked up their play. For most of the night, they were unable to establish anything off the rush. They also had little forecheck due to a lack of possession time. That can be attributed to the face-off issue. But as Gallant explained to reporters who tried to get him to overreact to one game, the Leafs are one of the best face-off teams in the NHL. It was one of those nights. They have dominated the Rangers on draws in two home games. There’s one match-up remaining on Jan. 19 at MSG.

Finally with some momentum from the Hunt goal, they carried the play. Stringing together three straight offensive shifts that pinned Toronto in, they nearly tied it. However, Campbell prevented it with some strong goaltending. He was on from the beginning. His best work came during the second when he made four huge saves including denying Gauthier in tight and gloving a Kevin Rooney shorthanded bid. He also stifled Artemi Panarin on a mini- break and shut him down on a point blank shot.

Speaking of Panarin, he didn’t have too many opportunities. But a K’Andre Miller backdoor feed just missed connecting. If he gets it clean, it’s likely in the back of the net. Although he had four shots on Campbell, the one instance he didn’t shoot the puck near the end was frustrating. With a clean look at it from the left circle, he over passed for Kreider, who couldn’t handle the puck which went out of play. Sometimes, Panarin needs to be more selfish.

Probably the turning point of the third was a wise decision Leafs’ coach Sheldon Keefe made. Displeased with his team’s sudden backpedaling, he used a timeout to help the home team regroup. He really laid into his players and got the message across.

One thing that was noticeable in the final frame was the Rangers’ compete level. If they were shutdown by the improved Toronto defense the first two periods, they sure battled to win loose pucks and apply more pressure on a tough opponent late. Comparatively speaking, the two Original Six rivals combined for 27 shots with the slight edge to the Rangers 14-13 in a way more open third.

Shesterkin made his best saves in the final 20 minutes to keep the Blueshirts in it. That included a dazzler on John Tavares and another key stop to deny Mitch Marner. Outside of Rielly, who beat him twice with one from long distance through traffic and the other closer in on the power play after the skilled Leafs’ defenseman went around Jacob Trouba, Shesterkin was good. He made 28 saves on 30 shots.

As noted above, there were only two power plays. One for each side. Unfortunately, the Rangers lost the battle of special teams. They failed to score on their only power play which came less than a minute after Rielly notched his first of the game with Wayne Simmonds helping screen Shesterkin. Although the man-advantage got setup time, they only had one shot. Not enough to threaten the league’s third ranked penalty kill.

It was midway through the game that a Hunt trip on veteran Jason Spezza handed the Leafs their one power play. Still up a goal, they were able to convert thanks to some strong work up top. With Kreider so close to clearing the puck out, both Tavares and Auston Matthews combined to keep the puck alive. Eventually, with Mika Zibanejad out of position, Matthews got the puck over to Rielly, who made a great move one-on-one to get past Trouba and go five-hole on Shesterkin from the slot for a power play goal at 10:59 of the second.

That was a big goal. Especially in a hotly contested game where neither side was giving up much room at even strength. It was the kind of game you’ll see if this team is indeed in the playoff hunt. There’s no reason to think they won’t be. But it was evident throughout that the Leafs keyed on both Zibanejad and Adam Fox. Neither were factors with Fox held without a shot. He was blanketed completely while Zibanejad had three shots. Even Kreider was held in check. Credit Toronto for a stingy game plan.

While Fox didn’t have his best game, it was the steadier play from Miller that opened eyes. Coming off a good game, the second-year defenseman made good decisions with and without the puck. He used his reach to break up a couple of chances including a nice recovery to deny Marner. He also again showed off his strong skating by jumping into the rush. Had his centering feed for Panarin connected in the third, who knows. Maybe the game goes to overtime. Miller’s sudden progression is a positive development.

Another one is the sudden turnaround from Trouba. Yes. He was on for both Leafs’ goals. However, he was all over the ice when things heated up. He made good pinches and had five shots on goal. On an off night for Fox, Trouba was leading the charge offensively. He got one of the best chances to tie it, but an aggressive Campbell came out to make a good glove save on his shot. He wound up playing the most minutes (23:44) over Fox (22:44).

Gallant rode his top guns with Panarin (20:49), Zibanejad (20:50) and Miller (20:25) seeing over 20 minutes. The latter earned the extra ice time with his superb play. Something Joe Micheletti picked up on, referencing it as his best game this season. You’ll get no argument here. Given his skating, I think it’s fair to say that Miller has some untapped potential. I believe he’s capable of contributing more offensively. We’ll see how that evolves.

It was also good to see rookie Nils Lundkvist get a few more shifts. A good skater with offensive instincts, he was more effective at five-on-five than two nights ago. The Rangers also trailed. So, Gallant was looking for offense. But overall, I thought this was one of Lundkvist’s better games. He made some solid plays in his end and was active throughout. He’s still learning the game.

While he received 15:26, old Sweden teammate Rasmus Sandin logged 14:31 for the Maple Leafs. They once paired together for Sweden at the World Junior Championships. Interestingly, they were taken one pick apart in 2018 with Lundkvist going number 28 followed by Sandin at 29. Both have bright futures.

If there was a gripe as the game got late, I didn’t understand why Gallant had his fourth line out with the third defense pair against the Matthews line. There were less than five minutes left and they got caught on defending against the Leafs’ most dangerous scoring line. At that point being down a goal, shorten the bench or double shift a Panarin or Zibanejad. It would’ve made more sense than cringing at the prospect of Matthews or Marner finishing them off.

They never stopped pressing for the equalizer. After Fox had a shot blocked out of play, it looked like the game was over. Following a predictable Tavares face-off win, the Leafs appeared ready to get the puck out. Instead, they didn’t. Somehow, a loose puck came right to Strome with a second remaining. His shot was stopped by Campbell as the buzzer sounded. It would’ve counted. A crazy ending to a well played game.

If you’re looking for any other positives, make it three straight games with a point for Kakko. He picked up the secondary helper on the Hunt tally early in the third that made it a game. Kakko is definitely looking more confident with and without the puck. But he went without a shot. He can’t get shut out.

Lafreniere didn’t register a shot either. Though he had a decent game on the cycle while being credited with two hits including a heavy one on Ondrej Kase late that definitely grabbed attention. He’s been more active on both the forecheck and back check since being teamed with Gauthier. I wouldn’t change that line. I like what they’re bringing with Chytil playing with more poise. Keep them intact.

If there’s one concern out of this game, it’s the lack of finish from Zibanejad and Panarin. They’re not being paid just to distribute the puck. The fact is both have four goals over the team’s first 17 games. Lafreniere has as many and he’s still figuring it out. Rooney has one less goal. Only Kreider has held up his end of the bargain with his 12 goals by far leading the team.

Even Strome must pick it up. While he extended his point streak to five (1-5-6), it would be nice if he thought shot more. He can’t always be content to set up Panarin. His game has picked up. I also loved him going at Michael Bunting twice. He’s very accountable as we saw in the postgame interview. He only won one draw out of 13, which he called “pitiful.”

If the Rangers are going to get where they want to, their top players must score more goals. The supporting cast is better even without Sammy Blais. But they need the leaders to lead the way.

Instead of traveling to Ottawa for another one of those afternoon specials on Saturday, they have an extra day off before hosting the Sabres Sunday night at 6 PM. It’ll be Hockey Fights Cancer Night. I wonder why they are having it at 6 on a football Sunday. Even if both local teams stink, people love their NFL. It won’t help with attendance which has suffered.

Speaking of Buffalo, they got absolutely rolled by Calgary 5-0 at home. The Flames are good. Interestingly, they’ll test their luck in the first ever home game at UBS Arena tomorrow night against the Islanders. That should be interesting. I would expect the Sabres to be a lot better on Sunday. They play hard for coach Don Granato. The Rangers can’t underestimate them. They must bank the two points.


3rd 🌟 Igor Shesterkin, NYR (28 saves including 13 of 13 in 3rd)

2nd 🌟 Jack Campbell, Leafs (27 saves including 13 of 14 in 3rd)

1st 🌟 Morgan Rielly, Leafs (2 goals including PPG in 2nd for GWG)

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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