Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel is congradulated by teammates on his goal against New York Rangers during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Monday, April 8, 2013.
Photograph by: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette, Canada.com
TORONTO — One more test.
That was how some inside the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room viewed this home-at-home series against the New York Rangers.
Win both and the fifth-place Leafs would almost assuredly be a lock to make the playoffs. Lose both and things would get a lot more interesting.
Heading into the game, the Leafs were fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. But with only a four-point lead on the seventh-place Rangers (and eighth-place New York Islanders), these two games were pivotal.
“We don’t want to be a .500 club the rest of the way going in,” Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser said. “Every game we’re approaching as a playoff game.”
The Leafs moved one step closer to their eventual goal, defeating the Rangers 4-3 on Monday. The teams play again in New York on Wednesday.
This one was not easy, despite how bad New York’s defence was at times. With the Rangers sitting on the bubble — they are two points ahead of the ninth-place Devils and 10th-place Jets — they were a desperate team.
“We got the first one here and that’s huge,” said van Riemsdyk, who finished the game with two points. “We just have to make sure we finish the job and get another one on Wednesday. It’s going to be a tough game. We know they’re a desperate team.”
As with their 2-1 win against the Devils on Saturday, the Leafs made a point of getting off to an early lead.
Van Riemsdyk whacked in a rebound midway through the first period.
After Toronto and New York traded goals, Kessel snapped a nine-game drought with a power-play goal in the final minute of the second to give the Leafs a 3-1 lead.
“It’s been a while,” said Kessel, who finished the game with three points. “I thought we played pretty well tonight as a line. We got a couple of bounces, so that helps. We were able to bury some. Like I said, it was a big win tonight.”
The Leafs made it interesting for themselves, as they usually do.
Nursing a 2-0 lead in the first, New York’s Rick Nash skated wide around Toronto’s defence, drove to the net and shoved the puck underneath goalie James Reimer. In the second, with the Leafs ahead 3-1, Nash did the same thing again to make it a one-goal game.
With 11 minutes to play in the third, Derek Stepan tied the game on a two-on-one break after Toronto’s Leo Komarov turned the puck over at the Rangers blue-line.
But the Leafs, who hit post after post and somehow missed an empty net, responded 39 seconds later as Kessel potted the game-winner.
“Anytime you can get your big guns going in a crucial game that’s a nice sign for your hockey club,” head coach Randy Carlyle said. “And that really hit that in a nutshell. You’ve got two guys that haven’t had a lot of success scoring goals but have been creating offence. And tonight, they were recipients of some hard work on their part and their line was a force out there.”
In doing so, the Leafs might have made these final nine games a little less stressful. There are now six points separating Toronto from both New York teams. At the same time, the sixth-place Senators remain four points back.
Either way, the next test might be in the first round of the playoffs.
“You can’t smell it until you’re there,” van Riemsdyk said of the post-season. “These are the toughest games of the year to win. And until you’re in the playoffs, you’re not in, so that’s why we’re taking it one day at a time, one game at a time.”
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Four days after being acquired at the trade deadline, Ryan O’Byrne made his Leafs debut on Monday. Based on how he played, it was likely not a one-off.
O’Byrne, characterized as a stay-at-home defenceman at the time of the trade, showed he can play at both ends when he joined an odd-man rush and then one-timed a pass from Nazem Kadri for a goal. He finished the game with three hits, three blocked shots and a plus-2 rating.
“We unleashed him tonight,” Carlyle said. “He’s not known for his offensive prowess, but he was smart enough to get up on the play, recognize the situation and he took advantage of it.”
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For the second straight day, Joffrey Lupul skated and took shots at the beginning of practice on Monday. But the forward, who has missed the last two games with a suspected head and neck injury, remains day-to-day.
“It’s very encouraging,” Carlyle said of Lupul’s on-ice participation. “He’s feeling his way through and he’ll tell us when he has to have a battery of tests as they always do in these types of situations.”
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The education of Jake Gardiner continues. After playing more than 16 minutes in Saturday’s 2-1 win against the New Jersey Devils, the sophomore defenceman was a healthy scratch Monday.
“I think that Jake has tried to be harder in the defensive zone. He’s worked at it in practice and he’s been a good soldier,” Carlyle said. “Now it’s just a matter of playing up to the speed that we think he can play to.”
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