By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 19, 2023.
TORONTO – Sheldon Keefe watched one of his players accidentally direct a puck into the Maple Leafs’ net.
Then it happened again. And once more for good measure.
Toronto’s head coach had no issues with the team’s effort Tuesday. The bounces just didn’t fall the home side’s way.
Braden Schneider scored the winner – New York’s only clean effort on Martin Jones – and Igor Shesterkin made 31 saves as the Rangers downed the Leafs 5-2.
“When one happens you’re like, ‘All right,'” Keefe said of the visitors’ Ping-Pong strikes. “The second happens and you think, ‘OK, the game works in weird ways. That’s why you play 82 of these things.’
“Things get sorted out, but I thought we did a good job.”
Mika Zibanejad, with two, Alexis Lafreniere and Artemi Panarin had the other goals for New York (22-7-1), which owns the best record in the Eastern Conference. Former Leafs defenceman Erik Gustafsson and Blake Wheeler had three assists each.
The red-hot Auston Matthews replied with both goals for Toronto (16-7-6) to give him an NHL-best 25 after sitting out Saturday with the flu. William Nylander picked up an assist to stretch his point streak to nine games.
“Good game in a lot of different areas,” Matthews said. “Three fluky bounces.”
Jones stopped 31 shots for the Leafs, who saw a nine-game point streak (6-0-3) that included a 7-3 victory over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12 come to an end.
“Really hard-fought game,” Schneider said. “They make you pay if you’re not executing.”
Shesterkin allowed six goals on 29 shots in that ugly defeat, but was solid on this night.
“Better start,” Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette said. “They pressed the whole night.”
Jones suffered his first loss of 2023-24 after starting 3-0-0 with a .949 save percentage since being recalled from the minors.
“A couple of tough bounces,” he said. “But for me, the (Schneider) goal is the disappointing one. I’d like to play that a little different in that time in the game.
“Who knows what could have happened after that?”
Down 2-1 through 40 minutes, Matthews got Toronto back even 1:16 into the third period when he fired his second goal of the night, 25th of the season, and 11th in the centre’s last seven games upstairs.
“Didn’t miss a beat,” said Keefe, whose team didn’t get a power play for the first time since March 10, 2022. “When he’s getting the puck around the slot, he’s got lots of confidence and he’s finding holes.”
But Schneider burst into the offensive zone and snuck a shot through the pads on Jones for his second at 8:08 to snap a 22-game drought after Toronto missed an assignment in the neutral zone.
“I just thought he was gonna pull it to the middle,” Jones said of the Rangers defenceman. “I went for a little poke check. Credit to him, he had his head up.”
“Just like the way the night is,” Keefe added, “it looks to me like that guy’s trying to go under the bar with that shot. And it goes five-hole. That’s the way it goes.”
Panarin iced it on a power play with 4:52 to go in regulation on another shot that went in off a Leafs blueliner – this time it was William Lagesson – for his 17th before Zibanejad added his 11th into an empty net.
The Rangers took a 1-0 lead at 6:11 of the second following a tepid opening 20 minutes when Wheeler’s pass bounced around the slot, deflected off Zibanejad, the stick of Toronto defenceman Jake McCabe and dribbled over the line.
The Leafs tied it 1:21 later when Matthews took a pass from Morgan Rielly and fired a bullet on the solid Shesterkin.
But the visitors went back in front on a power play at 9:50 when Lafreniere scored his ninth with a shot that hit Rielly and changed directions on Jones, who made 28 saves in last week’s victory over New York and 38 more in Saturday’s 7-0 home drubbing of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Both teams played a little cautious,” Keefe said of Tuesday. “Auston’s the only one that can beat world-class goaltending tonight. But we had more than enough (chances).
“The score looks a little strange “¦ it could have been the same score the other way quite easily.”
Leafs captain John Tavares was honoured with an on-ice ceremony alongside his family before the opening faceoff for reaching 1,000 career points last week. The 33-year-old is the 98th player in NHL history to reach the milestone. Leafs legend Darryl Sittler, who had 1,121 career points, presented Tavares with a golden stick.
Toronto visits Buffalo on Thursday, while New York welcomes Edmonton on Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2023.
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