The Maple Leafs blew a lead for the fourth time in five games on Wednesday and left Madison Square Garden with a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers.
After going ahead 3-1 in the first period, Toronto gave up five straight goals in a loss to the team at the top of the standings in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.
“I think we played soft, made poor decisions defensively and got exposed today as a team that is soft and purposeless,” a frustrated coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We had a very good start and then played like it was going to be easy the rest of the way.”
It was the fifth game of a six-game road trip and went sideways after a great start.
Ryan Strome scored to put the Rangers ahead 4-3 with 9:30 left in the third period, their first period of the night. By the end, New York had scored five unanswered goals as it improves ro 26-10-4 on the season. The Maple Leafs are 24-10-3 and remain third in the Atlantic division.
“We had a very good start,” Keefe said. “We have had a lot here of late. It is the finish that hasn’t gone well.”
The Maple Leafs took 2-0 and 3-1 leads in the first period before New York stormed back to tie it heading into the third.
Ilya Mikheyev tapped in a rebound off a shot by Pierre Engvall to put Toronto ahead less than three minutes after the opening puck drop. It was the Russian right wing’s sixth goal in eight games after he registered only seven in 54 last season.
MItch Marner then snapped in a shot 46 seconds later after accepting a blind pass across the net front from William Nylander on a power play to increase the lead to 2-0. The goal with 16:30 left in the first period was Marner’s first on a power play in 100 games dating back to nearly two years.
For Nylander, the point was the 300th of his career.
In a fast-paced first period, the big right wing Ryan Reaves answered for the Rangers with 7:08 remaining. Reaves beat Jack Campbell from directly in front of the crease for his first goal in 33 games this season. Adam Fox, last year’s Norris Trophy winner, was credited with the assist, his 35th in 40 games.
Michael Bunting, who had 10 goals for the Arizona Coyotes last year, scored his ninth so far with Toronto on a quick rebound off a backhand from Auston Matthews 2 minutes 10 seconds before the teams headed to their dressing rooms for the first intermission.
Reaves squeezed a puck past Campbell from a difficult angle from the right side of the net to make it 3-2 three minutes into the second period. It was a monster night for the big man who tossed his body around and hunted down pucks to the roars of an appreciative crowd.
Fox scored his sixth goal of the season with 2:11 remaining in the second to tie it 3-3. He added an empty-netter to make it 6-3 with 2:24 left. Fox finished with two goals and an assist.
“We get these leads and get bitten on the butt in the final 40 minutes,” Marner said. “We are getting away from the way we play in the first 20. This is something we have to stop and fix.”
Auston Matthews, Toronto’s superstar centre, came within inches of tying the NHL record with a goal in his 11th consecutive road game. He had one overturned late in the game when officials ruled he had kicked it in rather than having it deflect off his skate. He ended up one shy of the NHL mark set by Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings in 1988-89 and matched by Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks in 1993-94.
“I thought it was a goal from the start, but the refs thought otherwise,” Michael Bunting, whose shot Matthews deflected, said. “I was excited for him. It is just unfortunate how it went.”
Matthews had 12 goals and three assists during the streak and has 25 goals this season, which is third in the NHL, after leading the League with 41 in 52 games last season.
Toronto played without first-line defenceman Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl, who often serves as his defensive partner. Muzzin suffered a concussion in Saturday’s victory in St. Louis over the Blues, while Holl remains in COVID-19 protocol in Arizona.
As a result, Morgan Rielly and T.J. Brodie were paired on the first line, with youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren on the second and Travis Dermott and Alex Biega on the third.
The shuffled lines made for a tough task against the Rangers, who have three players who were selected for the All-Star game in right wing Chris Kreider, Fox and centre Mika Zibanejad.
The line of Sandin and Liljegren ended up minus-three on the evening, meaning New York scored three of its six goals at even strength when they were on the ice.
“They had a tough night,” Keefe said. “They played very difficult minutes. I don’t think it went well for them.”
The matchup featured two Vezina Trophy candidates in goalies Campbell and Igor Shesterkin of New York.
Campbell entered with a 19-5-3 record and .931 save percentage. Shesterkin came in at 17-4-2 and .939 and four straight victories in which he allowed a combined five goals. He was unbeaten in his last seven home games and had held opponents to two goals or fewer in nine of his previous 11 starts.
He finished with 35 saves. Campbell stopped 21 of 26 pucks sent his way.
“It is just not good enough,” Campbell said. “I will just look at the [video] tape and promise I will be better. I have to get back to stopping pucks and that is what I will do.”
Shesterkin stopped Nylander on a breakaway in the third, stymied Engvall on a rush a bit earlier and then robbed John Tavares in the last five minutes. Before he allowed the winning goal, Campbell denied Chris Kreider from in close in.
Kreider padded the lead and closed out the scoring with 4:27 left.
“We got exposed in a lot of areas where we haven’t been exposed before tonight,” Keefe said. “This one should bother us.”