Ryan Reaves was made for moments like this. The larger than life veteran right wing provided the spark for a stirring Rangers 6-3 comeback win over the Maple Leafs on home ice. His two goals got a rusty team that hadn’t played since Saturday, back into it.
With familiar coach Gerard Gallant keeping the fourth line energizer out late for a possible first NHL hat trick, Reaves heard the chants of “Reavo, Reavo,” from happy fans at The Garden. It was well deserved. The game’s First Star got a loud ovation and then a postgame interview with the NHL On TNT. He enjoyed every moment of it.
In a game where they looked lost early on as the Leafs scored twice in the first few minutes, it really felt as if the Rangers would have one of those nights. For a team that got back to full strength with Alexis Lafreniere returning from protocol, it didn’t seem that they had it. Sloppy turnovers, undisciplined penalties that put them behind two right away.
If you wanted a turning point, perhaps it was the crucial penalty kill of a Reaves’ tripping minor that followed a Chris Kreider trip which led to an easy Mitch Marner power play goal. While a less than sharp Igor Shesterkin fought the puck to make some key stops, it really didn’t turn until a big shift from the fourth line.
After being outshot 7-0 and 9-1 early on, the Blueshirts got back on track thanks to a momentum turning shift from the fourth line of Reaves, Kevin Rooney and Greg McKegg. Interestingly, McKegg stayed in the lineup over Dryden Hunt, who was cleared to return. That’ll have to wait. On a rare forecheck, McKegg had a key hit and made the pass for a wide open Reaves that saw him score his first as a Ranger to pull within one at 12:52.
That goal in which an excited Reaves pumped his fists in the air, really woke up the building. They hadn’t had much to cheer for before then. Suddenly, it was the Rangers carrying the play. They outshot the Leafs 10-2 the rest of the period.
However, not before they got caught napping. On a shift from the Auston Matthews line, Marner transitioned the puck quickly to a driving Matthews who got off a soft backhand that Shesterkin let out a bad rebound right to Michael Bunting for a two-goal Leafs’ lead once again with 2:10 left. That could’ve been a back breaker. But a refocused Rangers didn’t allow it to be.
It would’ve been easy to throw their sticks up and not scratch and claw their way back. Especially in a first where Patrik Nemeth was taken off a puck and Ryan Lindgren threw the puck away causing an Ilya Mikheyev goal that put Toronto up at 2:44. They could’ve done the same after a bad Kreider minor that lead to John Tavares circling around K’Andre Miller and then William Nylander centering for a Marner power play goal for 2-0 at 3:30. Similar following the bitter end to the first on the rare Shesterkin gaffe that made it 3-1.
Not this team. Not under this coach. Not this year. Instead, the Blueshirts got right back in it through yeoman work and the steadying influence of Shesterkin. He only stopped the last 27 Toronto shots. That included some gigantic saves including a pair on breakaways with none better than his glove stop on Nylander at a huge point of the third.
With the top guns having issues getting going, it was obvious that the best line was the fourth. They forechecked and won all kinds of board and puck battles versus a good opponent. Even if the Leafs were missing key defenseman Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl, the Rangers had to take advantage of it. They hardly worked consistently in a discombobulated first where both sides were sloppy.
As if to prove a point, Reaves made a good defensive play to take away the puck inside the Toronto zone. That hustle would eventually lead to Reaves getting to a loose puck and surprising Jack Campbell with a wrist shot that caught him just off his near goalpost to sneak in for his second of the game at 2:58. Miller and Jacob Trouba picked up assists on the play that again made it a one-goal game.
Even as they were right back in it, the Rangers had to overcome their own mistakes. That included a bench minor for too many men on the ice. Not a penalty you want to take against the firepower of the Maple Leafs. Fortunately, the penalty kill kept the dangerous Leafs to the outside. Astonishingly, Shesterkin still had to come up with a tricky mask save on a long Matthews shot. Bookmark it. It was critical.
As the second moved on, the teams were playing an exciting style. It consisted of a lot of skating which led to scoring chances. One thing that was noticeable is Campbell was shaky. He made the saves, but was leaving rebounds. Shesterkin had a few tough ones, but his play got stronger as it went on. You felt that if the Rangers could get one more puck by Campbell and tie it, they’d win. They had the better goalie. No disrespect meant to Campbell, who’s been superb for the Leafs. They’d be nowhere without him. You could echo that for Igor and a couple of other big names in the league.
The Blueshirts finally got it tied thanks to one of their top lines. Behind the checking line, the play of the newly formed second line that features Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Fil Chytil were coming on throughout. In fact, Chytil got a chance on a power play. But Campbell made a glove save to deny him. He’s continued to look better since Gallant moved him off center. This experiment seems to be working so far.
On a forecheck with under three minutes left in the period, a Chytil keep allowed the play to continue. Eventually, Panarin kept it moving for Strome, who centered for a pinching Fox who scored the tying goal with 2:11 remaining. He went five-hole on Campbell for his sixth from Strome and Panarin at 17:49. The goal was the first for Fox since Dec. 4 versus Chicago. He was continuing to pile up points with assists. But sometimes, you need your top defenseman to pop a few. He sure got it done on Wednesday night.
Following the Fox tally, Strome was forced to take a slashing minor to prevent a potential Toronto goal that would’ve killed the momentum. So, the Leafs were back on the man-advantage. Thankfully, the penalty killers got it done including a 20-second carryover to start the deciding third period.
Buoyed by the intermission, the Leafs were better in the first part of the third. They were dictating play. That meant more work for Shesterkin, who had to contend with 17 Toronto shots. That included a couple of point blank denials with him recovering in time to stop a good chance in front. If there was a difference in the third, it was Shesterkin. He stood tall.
The stellar play from the athletic Russian netminder gave the Rangers a confidence boost. With the game still tied past the halfway mark, Panarin made a good read in the Leafs zone. He pulled up and found space. Then passed the puck for a pinching Lindgren, who got off a shot that was blocked by Nylander. The Rangers got a home bounce with the puck going right to Strome for the game-winner with 9:10 remaining in the third. It was his ninth.
After Mikheyev bumped into Shesterkin after a key stop, the Rangers went on the power play. They went 0 for 2. It was moments later that the game hung in the balance. Following having a shot blocked inside the blue line, Panarin got another opportunity. However, he made a poor pass that was easily intercepted and pushed forward to Nylander.
In what amounted to the save of the game, Shesterkin stole a goal by getting his glove up enough to keep the Nylander shot out. Igor chants followed. He was so calm, cool and collected on the breakaway. That kind of confidence can really help a team. He didn’t have his best game. But when the chips were down, Shesterkin was gigantic.
Earlier on, Kreider got a breakaway. But he was stopped by Campbell who denied his wrist shot try. That was an excellent save. On what had been a relatively quiet night for the top line, Mika Zibanejad won an offensive draw following a Toronto icing. The puck came back for a Trouba shot that went right to Kreider for a layup at 15:33. His team best 25th gave him four goals in the last three games. Only Alex Ovechkin and Leon Draisaitl have more. What a season for Kreider. It’s well deserved.
Right after the goal that made it 5-3, the Leafs thought they had one on the next shift. A puck banked off Matthews and past Shesterkin to initially cut it to 5-4. However, the TNT video replay clearly showed a distinct kicking motion from Matthews. He kicked it with his right skate. Then attempted to get his stick on it. A clear indication it was a kick. The officials quickly reviewed it and overturned the goal. No goal.
The only thing left was whether or not Reaves would make it a memorable night. Could he get the hat trick. He had one shot at it prior. On a shift where he deflected a puck before Rooney was stopped by Campbell. It’ll have to wait. He got the game’s First Star and the interview which was hilarious.
With Campbell lifted for an extra attacker, Zibanejad won a defensive draw back to Fox who fired down into a vacated net for his second of the night. That made it 6-3 with 2:24 to go. A great way to finish off what started out as an ugly game. Instead, it turned out to be quite a night for Reaves and the Blueshirts.