NEW YORK – Carl Gunnarsson and his teammates left Madison Square Garden of two minds.
"There was some good and some bad," he told TSN.ca, just before boarding the team bus for a late-night flight back to Toronto.
He and the Leafs stole a point from the Rangers in a slugfest on the road before falling in yet another shootout. Entrenched as the fifth seed in the East with 49 points, they exit the home-and-home set with New York holding three of a possible four points, now five points up on the final three playoff teams, including the Rangers at 44 points.
"We get three points out of four, we came back from being [down] going into the third," said Gunnarsson, describing the good of the 3-2 defeat, "but we also remember how bad we played for a couple minutes in the second and that made the game tight, turned around in their favour."
Phil Kessel scored twice more for the Leafs, including the opening marker early in a middle frame that was owned by the home side. Led by the trio of Ryan Callahan, Derick Brassard and Carl Hagelin, the Rangers would pot a pair in less than six minutes to snatch the lead. Hemmed in their own zone for a string of extended shifts, the Leafs mustered nothing offensively, held without a shot for a stretch of 24 and a half minutes between the second and third frames, the reigning Vezina champ Henrik Lundqvist kept inactive.
"I remember looking up in the second period and seeing 16 [shots] and then middle of the third I looked up and it was still at 16 so I was thinking to myself 'Are they screwing up or have we not got a shot?" Tyler Bozak grinned afterward.
Kessel's second snipe of the night would end that drought midway through the final period of regulation and more importantly, knot the score back at two and allow the Leafs to snatch at least a point.
Obvious lessons can be gleaned with only eight games to go in a final push to the postseason.
"We can't play like that for a stretch of minutes," Gunnarsson concluded, "whatever it is, whenever it is, during a game. We can't stop playing, can't stop skating like that. You see what happens right there, they score two goals and they're in the lead and could've maybe had one more."
1. Another big night for a different Kessel
On Tuesday evening, Amanda Kessel scored the game-winner to lift Team USA to gold at the women's World Championships. Her brother Phil had his second straight two-goal outing a night later, also scoring twice against the Rangers on Monday. "I think he's just doing what he's been doing all year," said Tyler Bozak of Kessel. "He's been playing good all year and now he's on the receiving end of some good plays and he's putting his chances in the net. He's been good for us all year and I think it's just starting to reward him a bit." Kessel now has 14 goals and 40 points in 40 games this season, tying Nazem Kadri for the team lead in scoring, 12th overall. The 25-year-old started slow with four points in the opening nine games, but has since amassed 36 points in a 31-game span.
2. An odd night for Grabovski
He began the night on the fourth line alongside Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, just two nights after totaling his fewest minutes of the season against the Rangers, but even if frustrated, Mikhail Grabovski has shown no interest in causing a distraction. "See my smile," he said after logging exactly 11 minutes on Wednesday evening. "I'm not frustrated at all."
Seemingly looking to spark the struggling 29-year-old centre, Randy Carlyle glued Grabovski onto the fourth line for the opening two periods against the Rangers before shifting him back onto a unit with Leo Komarov and Jay McClement in the third and through overtime. Grabovski was also selected as the final shooter in the shootout, Lundqvist stopping him to end the game. "I thought he played fairly well," Carlyle said of Grabovski, who has just five points in the past 18 games and only 15 on the year. "I thought he was on the puck, he showed more desire and more effort out there, and he was very noticeable."
Enduring the worst season of his career, Grabovski has been unable to align with the role Carlyle has laid out for him, the usual tenacity and fire mysteriously missing from his game. The Leafs need the Grabovski of old to show himself as they enter the postseason for the first time in nine years, a fact surely not lost on Carlyle as he looks to light a fire under his the team's highest-paid forward. Ultimately, Carlyle needs Grabovski to accept and thrive in a checking line role come playoff time with Bozak and Kadri entrenched in the top two centre positions. "For me it doesn't matter who I play with," Grabovski said, playing the role of good soldier, "I just want to play. I'm on the ice I'm happy."
3. More shootout misery
Tyler Bozak remains the only Leaf to score in the shootout for the Leafs, who fell for the fifth time in five trips this season. Bozak was among the three shooters – Kadri and Grabovski the others – to shoot and ultimately fail against Lundqvist on Wednesday. "It seems to haunt our hockey club," Carlyle said of the shootout. "There's five extra points that we've lost in shootouts because we're 0-5. It's not a healthy stat and it's an area that we'd like to improve on. It's just the way it is right now and we have to accept responsibility for it. I thought our goalie gave us a chance, but when you don't score a goal in the shootout you're not going to win very many."
Leaf shooters are just 3-24 in shootouts, a 12.5 percent mark which, according to TSN research, is tied for the third-worst team percentage ever (minimum of 15 attempts), bested only by the 2006-2007 Hurricanes and Flyers.
4. Leafs vs. Nash III
Rick Nash had proven a thorn in the Leafs side in the previous two meetings this season, scoring twice and adding a pair of assists. But he was held completely in check on Wednesday night, quiet with just a single shot. "From a personal standpoint I think we did a pretty good job both nights overall," said Gunnarsson, who teamed with Dion Phaneuf to help shut down Nash, who happened to score both of his goals Monday night when the Leafs top pairing was not on the ice. "Tonight was probably a bit better [than Monday]. We got him pretty good, kept him on the outside."
5. Chess match
The chess match between Carlyle and Rangers coach John Tortorella was almost shot for shot as it pertained to Nash, who was riding a three-game goal streak and has 17 so far this season. Carlyle's matchup called for Gunnarsson and Phaneuf to be on the ice anytime Nash and his unit jumped out there, joined, if possible, by the checking trio of Komarov, McClement, and Ryan Hamilton (and Kulemin in the final period).
The cat-and-mouse game was furious. One instance in the opening frame saw the Leafs lined up in the offensive zone for a faceoff, the line of Brad Richards, Ryan Clowe and Mats Zuccarello on the ice for New York. Seeing that, Carlyle called for his top line of Kessel, Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. But with the advent of last change, Tortorella sprung for the Nash line, which also included Callahan (until the second) and Derek Stepan. Advantage: Tortorella.
In another instance, Carlyle had his fourth line on the ice for yet another offensive zone faceoff, the Nash trio jumping out just before the draw. A faceoff win for Grabovski allowed Carlyle to re-establish the upper-hand, the Leafs checking trio jumping quickly onto the ice along with Phaneuf and Gunnarsson. Advantage: Carlyle
Nash scored twice in Toronto on Monday, Gunnarsson and Phaneuf on the bench in both instances, a win for Tortorella. But in keeping Nash silent on Wednesday, Carlyle emerged with the unlikely upper hand on the road.
Quote of the Night
"See my smile. I'm not frustrated at all."
-Mikhail Grabovski, asked if frustration was setting in following a demotion to the fourth line to start Wednesday's game.
0-5: Record in shootouts.
3-games: Point streak for Phil Kessel, who has four goals and six points in that span.
4-games: Point streak for James van Riemsdyk, who has two goals and five points in that span.
11-6-3: Record on the road.
6-1-3: Record in the past 10 games.
9-9: Penalty kill vs. Rangers this season.
86-93: Penalty kill over the past 29 games, including a perfect 15-15 in the last four games. The unit remains third overall at 87.2 percent.
5: Points for Mikhail Grabovski in the past 18 games.
10: Games without a goal for Clarke MacArthur.
2-9-3: Record when trailing after two periods.
30:31: Dion Phaneuf.
The Leafs return home to face the Canadiens on Saturday.