Maple Leafs-Rangers Preview
It's been so long since the Toronto Maple Leafs have made the playoffs, they're not taking their current run of success for granted.
The Maple Leafs try to strengthen their spot in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday night when they complete a home-and-home set with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Currently with the league's longest drought for a team without a Stanley Cup title (1967) and last playoff appearance (2004), the Maple Leafs (22-13-4) are in good shape to at least end the ridicule that comes with the latter as an Original Six member and the stigma of being the only team not to qualify for the postseason since the 2005 lockout.
Toronto improved to 7-1-3 in its last 11 games following Monday's 4-3 win, snapping a three-game skid to the Rangers and giving it a cushion for fifth place in the East with nine games remaining. Phil Kessel scored twice to end a nine-game drought and the Maple Leafs won for the 12th time in one-goal games not decided by a shootout.
"It was an important game for us, it moved us up a couple more points up in the standings," Kessel said. "(A playoff berth) is still far away, we still have nine games left so we have to focus on these last nine games and play well and hopefully get in.''
The Rangers (19-16-4), who reached the conference finals last season and are fighting to make the playoffs for the third straight year, had a four-game point streak snapped.
"At this point of the season we have to be a lot more desperate and can't be having those defensive zone breakdowns," said forward Rick Nash, who scored two goals before Derek Stepan tied the game at 3 with 11 minutes to play. "At this point of the season we have to be a lot more desperate and can't be having those defensive zone breakdowns."
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist also thought he could have played better and knows he needs to improve to give his team a split of this home-and-home series before a critical road game against the New York Islanders on Saturday.
"They did expose us a couple of times because of their quickness," the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner said. "I have to be a little better because of that. I need to make better reads and be a little bit faster. I need to play my game and be a little sharper."
One matchup Rangers coach John Tortorella will definitely try to exploit is having Nash avoid Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf. The hulking left wing overpowered Toronto's second blue-line pairing of Cody Franson and Mark Fraser for both his goals, giving him six in his last eight contests.
Nash was a playmaker in the first meeting between these teams, registering two assists as the Rangers rallied from a 2-0 deficit with four third-period goals in a 5-2 home win Jan. 26.