Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle thought his team played "very well for 53 minutes" of Thursday night's shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
The coach was being unusually generous in his assessment, considering the Rangers did not let the Leafs have the puck for most of the second period and the first half of the third. Starting at 3:32 of the second period through the eight-minute mark of the third, the Leafs did not have so much as a shot on goal for a stretch of more than 24 minutes.
However, by fusing luck and opportunity, the Maple Leafs managed to take three of a possible four points from the New York Rangers in their home-and-home series, despite the fact they lost yet another shootout, dropping a 3-2 decision at Madison Square Garden. That dropped their season record in shootouts to 0-5 but the single point, coupled with two points from Monday's win over the Rangers in Toronto, put another brick in the Leafs' NHL playoffs wall.
The Leafs are now fifth in the Eastern Conference with 49 points in 40 games. That puts them five points ahead of the reeling Ottawa Senators, the Rangers and the New York Islanders. What has their fans stirred up was the Boston Bruins' win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, which put them into first place in the Northeast Division, dropping the Montreal Canadiens to fourth, which sets up a potential first-round playoff match with the Leafs.
Once the playoffs get here, the Leafs will be happy and not just because they have not appeared in the NHL post-season since 2004. No, it also means no more shootouts, as they are strictly a regular-season diversion.
Thursday's shootout went the way they usually do for the Leafs – Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri (who comically lost the puck) and Mikhail Grabovski all failed to score – while Mats Zuccarello scored for the Rangers. At least this time the Leafs had the excuse of facing one of the best goaltenders on the planet in Henrik Lundqvist.
"He's one of the hardest goalies to score on," Bozak said. "He stood his ground and he's tough to beat."
But, added Leaf forward James van Riemsdyk, referring to the three points the Leafs earned this week, "we look at the big picture and it's definitely good."
However, the Leafs were definitely not good for long stretches of the game. They had no business getting to overtime, but managed to cash in on the Rangers' defensive breakdowns and escape serious damage from their own miscues thanks to goaltender James Reimer.
Grabovski's selection as a shooter was a bit of a surprise, considering he has been in Carlyle's doghouse all season. Carlyle said the choice was actually made by assistant coach Greg Cronin, who was playing a hunch based on Grabovski's work on shootouts in practice. But his attempt to put the puck between Lundqvist's legs was easily turned away.
But Grabovski did seem to make a positive impression on Carlyle. He was banished to the fourth line at the start of the game, playing between Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren. But by the third period, Carlyle was giving him more ice time as he shuffled his bottom two lines.
Grabovski claimed to be happy skating on the fourth line, saying he doesn't care who he plays with as long as he plays. "See my smile?" he said. However, he did admit there is not much communication between him and Carlyle.
"Not really," Grabovski said when he was asked if Carlyle speaks to him regularly about what he needs to do to win more playing time. "I usually talk to second coach," he added, meaning Cronin.
However, it is not unusual for some NHL players to have no direct communication with the head coach. It can work as long as there is good rapport with at least one assistant coach.
The best chance to win the game in overtime went to the Leafs' Nazem Kadri, who had had a quiet night to that point. He got the puck in the slot with lots of net to shoot at but Lundqvist got his elbow on the shot.
Phil Kessel struck for his second goal of the game, and fourth in two games against the Rangers this week, just as it looked like the Leafs were going to be run out of the rink by the Rangers. After dominating the Leafs in the second period, they came out strong in the third but couldn't get anything past Reimer.
Then the Leafs capitalized on one of those breakdowns, as New York defenceman Dan Girardi coughed up the puck at his own blue line to van Riemsdyk. This sprung him and Kessel on a two-on-one rush, with Kessel finishing the play with his 14 goal of the season to tie the score 2-2 at 8:05.
Carl Hagelin and Ryan McDonagh scored the Rangers' goals in regulation time.
"I think he's just been doing what he's been doing all year, making the most of his [opportunities]," Bozak said of his linemate Kessel. Bozak said he thought fatigue was behind the team's fade in the second period.
"I remember looking up [at the scoreboard] in the second period and seeing 16 shots," Bozak said. "Then I looked up in the third and still saw 16. I was thinking, did they screw it up?
"But the Rangers are a desperate team. I think we're happy. We got two [points] at home and one on the road."