TORONTO — Just six periods into the season, the Rangers already are questioning themselves — from their competitiveness to their style to their collective defense.
After an 8-5 loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, a game in which they fell behind 5-1 in a dreadful first period before rallying for a tie in the second and fading in the third, the frustration was palpable and the self-criticism flowed in the visitors’ room at Air Canada Centre.
“It was an embarrassing start,” said Mats Zuccarello, who had a career-high four-point game. “We showed some character in the second period, but I mean, we let in eight goals. That’s not our identity. We have to realize you’ve got to defend first. We’re not going to win games like this. It’s going to be a long season if we play like this.”
Henrik Lundqvist was pulled after 20 minutes. Betrayed at times by the defense, he surrendered five goals on 18 shots before Kevin Shattenkirk’s power-play goal with 23 seconds left moved the Rangers within 5-2.
“I’m not going to try to look for excuses. I need to be better,” said Lundqvist, who was unsure if he will play against the Montreal Canadiens at home Sunday. “When a period like this happens, you have to step up and find a way, and I was not able to do it. Just have to look in the mirror here.”
After the first period, which coach Alain Vigneault termed “pond hockey,” he not only switched goalies but shuffled lines and defensive pairs. For example, J.T. Miller moved from wing to center between Zuccarello and Rick Nash.
The Rangers responded with three goals in the second period, from Mika Zibanejad, Marc Staal and Zuccarello. Backup goalie Ondrej Pavelec made his Rangers debut and stopped all 11 shots he faced in the period.
But as Staal said about the team’s comeback: “That doesn’t mean anything now. Yeah, they’re a good offensive team, but we gave them everything in the first period. We were losing all the battles, foot races. It’s OK if one or two guys are a little rusty, or make a few mistakes, but when it was everybody . . . We felt good at the start, but we were getting outcompeted and they filled the net.”
Zibanejad’s goal in the second period was his third power-play goal of the season and cut the Leafs’ lead to 5-3. Shattenkirk and Zuccarello picked up assists.
Staal scored his first of the season when he skated into the slot and redirected a pass from Zuccarello to move the Rangers within 5-4. Zuccarello’s tip tied it at 5 at 14:06, with Staal and Miller getting assists. The play was reviewed, but Zuccarello’s stick was ruled to have been under the crossbar, and the goal stood.
In the third period, a tip by Tyler Bozak, curling in front, gave Toronto a 6-5 lead with 12:43 left. Vigneault challenged the call as offside, but the goal stood, and under the new rules, the Leafs were awarded a power play. Leo Komarov’s goal with 10:08 left was the dagger on a night when there were a lot of wounds on each side.
Nazem Kadri closed it out with a power-play goal at 18:30 on the 41st shot by the Leafs.
The Leafs, who scored seven goals in their season-opening win over Winnipeg on Wednesday, unleashed a barrage early. It started at 2:30 with former Ranger Dom Moore’s tip and finished at 17:19 on Zach Hyman’s second goal of the period. Four of the five goals were at even strength.
It was the first time Lundqvist allowed five goals in the first period since Dec. 16, 2006, also against the Leafs. The three he gave up against Colorado in Thursday’s opener brought the troubling total to eight allowed in four periods.
His reactions were late and his body language was poor. After a late glove save, Lund qvist did handle a Bronx cheer from the fans with aplomb, raising his glove after the whistle and tossing the puck into the slot.