On paper, it was about as big a mismatch as there is in the league these days.
In one net, the New York Rangers had Henrik Lundqvist, one of the top 'tenders in the league and a backstop who had carried his team in allowing just 11 goals in his first six games.
In the other, the Toronto Maple Leafs were stuck with struggling backup Jonas Gustavsson after starter James Reimer was pronounced unable to go due to a mysterious neck injury that kept him out of his second game.
In the end, however, it was the far less heralded Swedish goalie who pulled out the win.
The Leafs capped off a four-game road trip with a convincing 4-2 win on Thursday night, embarrassing the Rangers in their long-awaited home opener and getting one of the better performances from Gustavsson in the last calendar year.
While New York held the balance of play in the first 20 minutes – even going up 1-0 early when defenceman Dan Girardi put a knuckler through Gustavsson’s legs – Toronto put together its best 40 minutes of the season the rest of the way.
In one stretch from the start of the second to late in the third, the Leafs out-shot the Rangers by an incredible 24-8 margin, a push that began when Matt Lombardi surprised King Henrik from a bad angle to tie the game early in the second.
“Give our defence credit, we did a great job in the second period,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “Getting the puck heading north as quickly as possible. We had a great forecheck going because our D were moving the puck quickly.
“We did fortunately survive the first period. That was a shot he should have and then he stopped some ones he shouldn’t have. But that’s hockey. We found a way to get the job done for him. Got him some run support.”
That came when Toronto’s continued pressure eventually resulted in a flurry of third-period goals to put the game away, with wingers Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur and Mike Brown all beating Lundqvist in a 12-minute span to bring out the foul-mouthed boo birds in the beautifully renovated Madison Square Garden.
MacArthur and Brown – each scoring their first of the season – both did so on long shots not typically able to beat Lundqvist, who had been one of the few positives for the Rangers during a trying seven-game road trip to open their season.
“You don’t normally get those [goals]” MacArthur said. “We’ll take anything we can get against him. He’s in my mind the best or one of the best in the league. But he’s human.”
Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto wired a point shot past Gustavsson with a few minutes to play, but it ultimately proved too little to mount a comeback.
“They came out strong, as we thought they would,” Gustavsson said. “Then the second and third periods I think were probably our best periods we’ve played so far [this season] The guys did a great job.”
“With the way they started, he kept us in the game,” centre Tim Connolly said of Gustavsson. “They bumped him a few times [on two goals that were disallowed in the first] but he stood right in there and did a great job. It’s a big win for us.”
While the Gardens may have been finally reopened, the team on Broadway looks like one with a lot of work left to do.
The Leafs, meanwhile, could be trending upward, with the 2-2-0 finish to a difficult trip keeping them ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and atop the Northeast Division for another day.
“We’re evolving as a team and learning how to play together,” Wilson said. “Considering the people that have been missing from out lineup, to be 6-2-1 right now, we’re very happy with that.”
Reimer out until at least Sunday
Reimer’s injury situation got more than a little confusing in the lead-up to the game, as while he was expected to start against the Rangers, he wasn’t on the ice at the morning skate.
Gustavsson then told the media Reimer was out with a concussion, only to have that bombshell quickly refuted by coach Ron Wilson.
Later in the day, GM Brian Burke appeared on a Toronto radio station to set the record straight.
“It’s not a concussion,” Burke said. “He’s being treated for concussion-like symptoms. He rated very low in all of those areas [in testing]in terms of whether its a concussion or not. It’s not a concussion. If it were, we would say that. We’re not being evasive here.
“We expect at this point that James will be able to play on the weekend.”
The Leafs, however, had placed Reimer on injured reserve just prior to Thursday’s game, allowing them to keep third-stringer Ben Scrivens with the team until at least Saturday’s home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That move means the earliest Reimer can play will be Sunday in Ottawa, where the Leafs start a three-game road trip.
Connolly solid in Leafs debut
Wilson didn’t waste any time in working Connolly into the lineup, as the team’s lone free agent signing of note skated more than 15 minutes on the top line with Kessel and Lupul and didn’t look out of place despite seeing his first action since last season.
Connolly almost picked up his first point more than once, creating a chance in close on Lundqvist that Kessel misfired in the first and then battling in front of the net when Toronto’s second goal bounced over Lundqvist.
“Timmy did a really good job,” Wilson said. “He created a number of scoring chances. He's a smart player. I’m glad we won so he doesn’t feel like he came in and jinxed us.”
Where Connolly wasn’t very good, however, was in the faceoff circle, as he won just six of 16 draws to drop the Leafs under 50 per cent on the night. Given that he’s coming off a shoulder injury, however, that wasn't totally unexpected.
Big number: 16
Points for Leafs sniper Phil Kessel in the first nine games of the season after he picked up an assist against the Rangers. Kessel maintained his four-point lead over Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza atop the league’s scoring race.
“Phil had a great game,” Wilson said. “He had a lot of speed ... He setup a nice goal, he made a great play on that faceoff on Lupul’s goal, and otherwise they had a great effort from everybody [on that line]”