TORONTO -- For 10 games, the Rangers had allowed no more than two goals. But the defense showed some cracks against Carolina on Saturday, and Henrik Lundqvist had to bail out the Rangers with a career-high 48 saves.
The cracks widened last night, especially at a critical point after a desperate third-period rally, in a 4-3 loss to the Maple Leafs. The defeat left the Rangers (42 points) tied with the Islanders for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They are two points ahead of the ninth-place Devils with nine games to play.
Down 3-1 in the third, the Rangers battled back with two straight goals. Rick Nash's second terrific individual effort of the night at 2:50 and Derek Stepan's wrister at the nine-minute mark tied it at 3.
But 39 seconds later, Phil Kessel fanned on a shot all alone in front of Lundqvist (24 saves) but stayed with the puck and tapped it in with the goalie kneeling and out of position.
"We can't have a breakdown like that two shifts after we tied the game," coach John Tortorella said. "We had a couple breakdowns in the slot area."
It was the Rangers' first regulation loss in five games.
It sets up an even more important game tomorrow when the fifth-place Leafs, who have 48 points, visit Madison Square Garden.
"They're a very quick team down low," Ryan Callahan said. "It's hard to pin guys, close guys out. That's a little bit different than we've seen in a while and it gave us fits at times."
The Rangers stormed out in the third and closed the gap. Nash, who has seven goals and three assists in the last eight games, cut through the slot and beat James Reimer (31 saves). And just one second after the Rangers had killed a power play, Stepan scored his third in four games. But Kessel exploited the defense.
"It's just mental breakdowns, not being focused enough," Nash said.
The Rangers fell behind 1-0 in the first period because of one of those breakdowns. Dan Girardi hit the post from the right circle at 10:45, and the Leafs turned the other way and scored. John-Michael Liles, in the left corner, backhanded a pass to James Van Riemsdyk, left alone in front. He was robbed by Lundqvist, then jammed in his own rebound at 11:03.
Instead of sparking the team, special teams failed the Rangers, as they had before their 3-0-1 run. They were 5-for-11 in the previous four games on the power play, but went 0-for-2 Monday night.
And the penalty kill, 14-for-14 before the puck dropped, allowed a critical power-play goal as the Leafs extended to a 3-1 lead with 41.2 seconds left in the second period. With Callahan off for holding, Kessel fired from the left point through Girardi and Van Riemsdyk, screening in front. Lundqvist had no chance.
"There were miscommunications," said Girardi, who was a minus-3 (his defense partner, Michael Del Zotto, was a minus-2 and had an overall tough game). "We've got to tighten up defensively and limit chances in front for Hank, starting Wednesday."