Mats Zuccarello had little to celebrate six games into his second stint with the New York Rangers.
The 5-foot-7 spark plug had no goals and two assists in his return. Demanding coach John Tortorella noticed and wasn’t pleased with the lack of production.
On Wednesday, before the Rangers took the ice for the back end of a home-and-home series with Toronto, Tortorella called out Zuccarello, saying he needed to score – in games and in shootouts.
The message got through in a hurry.
Zuccarello scored the lone goal in the shootout, and the Rangers overcame another two-goal performance by Phil Kessel to beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 on Wednesday night.
The Rangers moved back into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with only eight games left.
”I feel more confident and am playing with good players and getting big minutes,” said Zuccarello, a Norway native who had eight goals and 26 points in 52 games with the Rangers the previous two seasons. ”I just have to keep creating chances and work hard, and it’s going to come.”
Zuccarello patiently skated in on James Reimer in the second round of the shootout, and found room between the goalie’s pads to give the Rangers the all-important second standings point.
He was 0-for-1 in shootouts this season and 5-for-11 in his career.
”Zucc is a different player than last year,” Tortorella said before the game. ”I feel very comfortable putting him in the situations, but he’s got to score. He’s got to score in the shootout. It’s nice that we’ve seen it before, but we need it now.”
Then he got it.
”He played good,” Tortorella said. ”We bounced him around and I thought he responded really well.
”As we said before, he needs to do something – and he did.”
Henrik Lundqvist turned aside all three Toronto shooters in the tiebreaker, and the Rangers (20-16-4) moved into a flat-footed tie with the New York Islanders, who had claimed seventh on Tuesday.
The Rangers returned from a 1-1-1 road trip and improved to 7-2-1 in their past 10 games. They have only three games left at Madison Square Garden.
”It’s a huge second point for us,” Tortorella said. ”It was a hard game for us, coming off the road. That is a big, big win.”
They will meet the Islanders on Saturday on Long Island.
The Ottawa Senators also are even with the Rangers and Islanders with 44 points at the bottom of the East race. Fifth-place Toronto, 7-1-4 in its past 12, has 49 points.
”We came away with a valuable point, and three out of four points in these two games is what it’s all about,” Reimer said. ”It was something we can be proud of.”
Carl Hagelin and defenseman Ryan McDonagh both had a goal and assist in the second period for the Rangers, who carried a 2-1 lead into the third. New York is 12-0-0 this season when leading after two and 82-0-6, dating to the 2009-10 season.
The teams engaged in a very spirited overtime that featured chances at both ends and only one stoppage in the 5-minute period. Lundqvist kept the Rangers in it with a series of in-close saves, culminating with a stop with his arm to deny Nazem Kadri.
Toronto outshot New York 4-2 in overtime but trailed 28-25 overall.
Kessel powered the Maple Leafs for a second consecutive game. After getting a pair of goals and an assist in Toronto’s 4-3 home win over New York on Monday, Kessel struck again twice, including the tying tally 8:05 into the third period that ended a stretch of 24 minutes, 33 seconds the Maple Leafs went without a shot.
Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi turned over the puck at the right point, and James van Riemsdyk raced up ice. He was joined by Kessel, who took a cross-zone pass and slammed in a shot to make it 2-2.
Kessel had gone nine games without a goal before breaking out this week.
”You knew it was just a matter of time before he’d cash in,” van Riemsdyk said. ”He plays with a lot of fire. It’s fun for me, too.”
The Maple Leafs came out strong at the start of the second period, grabbed the lead, and showed signs they were poised to sweep the series and leave the Rangers behind them for good.
Kessel made it 1-0 just 1:42 into the second with an unassisted goal, and the Maple Leafs soon after earned the first power play of the game.
But the Rangers killed it and began to turn the tide once they managed their first shot of the period around the midway point during a power play of their own.
New York didn’t convert on that advantage, but kept up the pressure and got even on Hagelin’s ninth of the season.
Hagelin worked hard behind the Toronto net and nearly scored on a jam shot. The Rangers retained possession in the Leafs’ end, and Derek Stepan let go a shot that Reimer stopped. Hagelin got the rebound and took a shot from along the goal line to Reimer’s left that found its way in.
McDonagh gave the Rangers their first lead in the two games when he stick-handled along the center of the blue line and snapped off a drive that knuckled through traffic. It fluttered past a screened Reimer.
”Quite honestly, I gave him (trouble) about that move earlier in the game, and he does it again and scores a goal,” Tortorella said. ”So much for coaching.”
NOTES: Stepan has a career-best, six-game point streak (four goals, five assists). … Kessel leads Maple Leafs players with seven goals, eight assists and 15 points in 24 career games against the Rangers. … Toronto is 0-5 in shootouts. The Rangers are 4-4. … Reimer made 31 saves in Monday’s win.