It was Garden of Dreams night at Madison Square Garden and the Rangers defense was in dream land.
The Rangers gave up four first period goals enroute to a deflating 7-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last night.
The Rangers have dropped three of their last four and there has to be some concern over how their defense has taken a step backward in recent games. Rangers have given up 17 goals in the three losses and at times, have seemed a step behind the opponent.
“We haven’t really faced a lot of adversity yet,” Blake Wheeler said after he ended a drought of 11 straight games without a goal by scoring twice. “We’ve kind of gone through the year just rattling off wins so these things are gonna happen to everyone throughout the year. It’s just a matter of how you respond to it.”
The NHL’s leading goal scorer, Auston Matthews, scored twice and had two assists while Mitch Marner also had two goals to pace the high powered Leafs’ offense.
The four goal, first period barrage came on 11 shots against Igor Shesterkin, who looked shaky early but was much better in the final two periods, despite the final goal total. Shesterkin made 29 saves but he’s lost his last three starts, giving up 15 goals in that span.
Did Laviolette have any thought of replacing Shesterkin with Jonathan Quick to start the second period? “No, I didn’t think about it.”
Leafs goaltender Martin Jones, who was making his first start of the season, stopped 28 shots.
Matthews opened the scoring with his 20th goal of the season at 3:52. William Nylander beat three Rangers and fed a wide open Matthews on the left side and he fired it past Shesterkin to make it 1-0.
A minute and 16 seconds later, the Leafs’ Calle Jarnkrok won a face off and got the puck back to defenseman Conor Timmins, who fired a wrister from just inside the blue line that zoomed past Shesterkin’s glove for a quick 2-0 lead.
Wheeler’s first goal of the game cut the lead to 2-1. Chris Kreider took a shot from the slot and the rebound came right to Wheeler who put it home for his third goal of the season at 5:42 of the first period.
The Rangers couldn’t sustain the momentum from Wheeler’s goal and the Leafs opened a three goal lead on goals by Jarnkrok and Marner in a :21 second span that gave the Leafs a 4-1 lead after one.
“The start wasn’t good enough, we were down 4-1. It’s not a situation that you want to put yourself in,” said Mika Zibanejad.
Jarnkrok was able to clean up a loose puck in front and find the net for his 7th goal of the season to make it 3-1. Marner scored the first of his two goals when he got behind the Rangers defense and took a feed from Matthews for an easy tap in to make it a three goal lead.
The Leafs had an 11-3 shot advantage, a total that was indicative of how poorly the Rangers were defensively.
“I don’t like the first period, I don’t like the way it played out for us,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought they were quicker than us and they were on their toes a little bit more so that bugs me. I thought we fought back in the game. It got to the third period, we go out and win the third period we got a chance of walkin’ away with points.”
The Rangers picked up their game in the second period and started to get more scoring chances against Jones who made big stops on Tyler Pitlick and Wheeler. Jones denied Pitlick who was in alone and then made a glove save on Wheeler to keep it 4-1 midway through the second period.
Late in the second period, the Rangers scored two goals in less than two minutes to cut the deficit to 4-3.
Zibanejad made it a 4-2 deficit with his 8th goal of the season on the power play. Zibanejad, who also had an assist and now has points in 10 of his last 11 games, was in his spot on the left side when he took a pass from Artemi Panarin and fired a one timer past Leafs goalie Martin Jones at 16:30 of the second period. The assist gave Panarin a point in all 12 home games this season.
A minute and 55 seconds later, Wheeler scored his second goal of the game to make it 4-3. Wheeler took a pass from Zibanejad and beat Jones with a wrister for his second goal of the game.
The Rangers had the momentum heading into the third period, but the Maple Leafs got the back breaker less than a minute and a half in.
Toronto pressured the Rangers early on and Shesterkin had to make a big save to deny Marner. The rebound came right to Toronto’s Tyler Bertuzzi who had an open net, but a sliding Jacob Trouba blocked the shot and kept the puck out of the net but it turned into a temporary reprieve.
A controversial interference call a few moments later on Erik Gustafsson put the Leafs on the power play. Toronto won the face off and Morgan Rielly’s shot from the point was deflected by Marner for his second goal of the game and 11th of the season to deflate the Rangers and restore the two goal lead at 1:29 of the third period.
With less than three minutes left, Matthews skated in on left wing. His initial shot was blocked by Trouba but it went right back to the Leafs center and he didn’t miss as he scored his second of the game and league leading 21st of the season as the Leafs went up 6-3. David’s Kampf’s empty netter with 1:27 left closed out a disappointing night for the Rangers.
It was a demonstration of the firepower that the Leafs can generate when an opponent is not playing defense. “Just a couple of instances where they entered, sort of untouched,” Wheeler said. “The quality of players on their team, if they’re gonna enter with that much time and space, they’re gonna make you pay and they did.”
K’Andre Miller missed the game for personal reasons. Zac Jones replaced Miller and was a -2. Gustafsson moved up to Miller’s spot to play with Trouba.