TORONTO – Clarke MacArthur compared it to a chess match of sorts.
A showdown with the best team in the Eastern Conference saw the Leafs come up a few moves short, snapping a five-game home winning streak with a 3-0 shutout loss to the Rangers at the ACC on Saturday night. It was just the second time all year the Leafs came up zeroes on the scoreboard with New York backup Martin Biron making a mere 20 saves to earn the win.
"It's more like a chess game against these kind of teams," MacArthur said, also referring to the quietly surging Ottawa Senators, who will come to town on Tuesday. "It was super boring. They don't give up much. We're just chipping the pucks in, they're doing the same thing to us and it's like nothing's happening. You're just going out there, skating around. It's a tough style. You can see why they win a lot of games. They try and bore you out of the rink almost. And they wait for a team to break down and they jump on you."
With punishing physicality and robot-like adherence to a stingy road style, the Rangers bottled up the Leaf speed game fully and completely for 60 minutes, the Leafs lacking zip and counterattack on the second game in as many nights.
"We were just – it seemed all night – about half a foot behind," Ron Wilson said. "We needed our speed in order to compete with them. They didn't allow us to get some speed in some situations, but we just didn't have the energy to play the game we needed to play."
Once Mike Rupp opened the scoring on a "bad play, a bad change" from Mike Komisarek, the Rangers locked it down a notch further, suffocating what life remained from the Leafs, before adding an additional pair to pad the win.
"They got the first goal, but we didn't really generate enough," Dion Phaneuf said. "That's really the reason why they ended up winning the game. We did not generate enough and they played extremely well."
The feel-good vibes of a perfect start to 2012 have quieted quickly with the Leafs dropping a pair this weekend, beginning with a 3-2 loss to Buffalo on Friday. Entering Sunday's action, they sat 7th in the Eastern Conference with 49 points.
1. Ruffling the feathers of the Leaf top line all night, the Rangers eliminated all exploits from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. The pair not only failed to hit the scoresheet for a third consecutive game – the longest stretch all year – but neither player even registered a shot on goal. "We didn't have many quality chances," Kessel conceded. "Our line has not been good for a couple games now. We're going to have to figure it out." For the second time in as many nights, the unit was also on the ice for two goals against.
2. In referring to Kessel's year-long consistency earlier in the week, Wilson noted that "he may have an off-game, but he's never dragged that into two, three, four off-games or even longer". Suddenly, that's what's happened. By their own ridiculously consistent standards, Kessel and Lupul have entered what amounts to their first slump of the season, the only time all year either player has gone more than a game without finding the scoresheet. Perhaps in need of a jump-start, they'll likely get Tyler Bozak back between them on Tuesday. Bozak has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, but is likely to return versus the Senators. "We'll see how Bozie feels," Wilson said. "If I think that he can help those two guys get going, yeah it's a possibility."
3. One thing to watch for with the 29-year-old Lupul is how many puck battles he's winning. Lupul noted recently that if he happened to enter a slump, he'd quickly look to re-establish that element of his game as far as getting back on track.
4. Just as Kessel and Lupul hit a rough patch, signs continue to point to Mikhail Grabovski emerging in the second half, potentially with long-time running mates Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. Wilson re-united the trio in the second period on Saturday. "We were trying to get something going," he said. "I thought they generated a few chances there, but puck didn't ever find the back of the net." The line is quietly hoping for a lengthy reunion. "I thought Grabo and I and Kulie started to play really well there," MacArthur said. "We had some chances. Hopefully we can get it going, if it stays that way." Wilson last had the line together on December 19, a brief 40-minute stint against Los Angeles.
5. MacArthur noticed a stark difference between the Rangers he saw in Manhattan and the team that visited Toronto for the first time all year. "It feels like it's a lot more wide-open game in MSG against them," he said. "They play a real, tight game on the road." The Leafs beat the Rangers in two meetings at Madison Square Garden, both by 4-2 finals and both with Jonas Gustavsson outdueling Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes.
Gustavsson made 27 saves in the loss. "I don't think you can at all fault our goalie," Wilson said, also downplaying the suggestion of an obvious return to the pipes for James Reimer on Tuesday. Reimer hasn't played since December 31…The only other occasion the Leafs were shutout this season, a 7-0 loss to Boston on November 5…Bozak had 20 points in a 22-game stretch before going down with a suspected left shoulder injury at practice in Winnipeg on December 30…The Leaf penalty kill extended its string of perfection to a season-long six games (11-11) with a perfect 2-2 night against the Rangers…Mike Komisarek's return from injury has all but removed Luke Schenn from duty killing penalties. Schenn has not logged a single second on the penalty kill since Komisarek returned from a broken arm four games ago…A minus-2 against the Rangers, Grabovski is a team-worst minus-9 at home…The Leafs sit ninth in the NHL in even-strength goal differential at plus-7…Connolly finished 1-8 in the faceoff circle, sitting at 47.1% this season…MacArthur led Leaf forwards in ice-time at 16:43...The Leaf powerplay came up empty in two opportunities.