The angry words, the tossed water bottles, the locker room exhortations during Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss in New Jersey, when the Blueshirts were totally outplayed and left Henrik Lundqvist out to dry, didn’t generate enough of a response against the Toronto Maple Leafs until the third period on Saturday.
A desperate, frantic push proved too late.
In the final game before a three-day holiday break, the Rangers’ self-inflicted wounds — penalties, missed opportunities on the power play and defensive lapses — disappointed a festive crowd wearing Christmas knit hats and Santa beards as the Blueshirts dropped a 3-2 decision to the Leafs at Madison Square Garden.
Before the game, coach Alain Vigneault said the group “understands that we need to be better” and declared that he was “very confident that our captain and his assistants sent the right message.” That message went mostly undelivered for the first two periods.
Trailing 3-1 in the third, Pavel Buchnevich’s pass from behind the net found J.T. Miller, who finished by beating Frederik Andersen (30 saves) between the legs at 11:25 to cut the lead to one.
Forty-four seconds later, Michael Grabner split two defenders and fooled Andersen. But after Toronto coach Mike Babcock’s challenge led to a video review, Kevin Hayes was ruled offside and the goal was disallowed.
“It was a good push in the third, we had our chances,” said Rick Nash. “But the offside was obviously offside.”
In a penalty-filled first period, the Rangers didn’t convert on 3:30 of a 5-on-3 and a standard power-play, and fell behind after Lundqvist somehow got a shoulder on center Auston Matthews’ tip in front, but William Nylander scored moments later for a 1-0 lead.
David Desharnais won a faceoff and chased the puck into the Leafs end, and helped force Ron Hainsey into clearing the puck over the glass at 10:01. Just 20 seconds later, Roman Polak was sent to the box when he boarded Mats Zuccarello from behind.
But the power play, hesitating on open looks, generated just two shots, as the Leafs clogged lanes and broke up passes with their sticks. When Morgan Reilly high-sticked Grabner, the Blueshirts had another man-advantage opportunity without converting.
Ryan McDonagh sailed the puck over the glass with 1:04 left. And that proved costly, as Hainsey’s one-timer from the right point on a power play just 50 seconds into the second provided a 2-0 lead. “Our power play has to cash in when we get the chances,” said Brady Skjei. “They scored one on theirs. We just came up on the short end tonight.”
The Rangers (19-13-4, 42 points) narrowed the gap to one at 2:37. Jimmy Vesey was forechecking when Andersen mishandled the puck, and he curled around the cage to bank the puck off the netminder.
The killer goal came midway in the period. Nick Holden, McDonagh, Grabner, Hayes and Vesey all somehow left Matthews, who had missed six games with a concussion, alone in front of Lundqvist for Zack Hyman’s pass and it was 3-1 at 11:22.
“I tried to poke it away. He had too much time,” said Lundqvist, who made 34 saves and did everything possible to give the Blueshirts a chance to grab a point. “He’s the wrong guy to face one-on-one in front of the net. He had a really good game; it felt like he was all over us.”
In the third, Vigneault cut down to three lines, but Andersen and the Leafs, who had lost four straight road games, held on.
“The last two games is kind of a reminder for us on how hard we have to work and how well we have to play,” said Lundqvist. “I look forward to Christmas, all my family’s here. We wanted to end on a high note, but we’ll take the break to recharge.”