The New York Rangers’ “Drive for five” had a formidable obstacle in their path as the surging Toronto Maple Leafs invaded Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. But against his old squad, Jimmy Vesey scored twice while Igor Shesterkin shone in goal as the Blueshirts won their fifth straight game with a hard-fought 3-1 victory.
More important than the triumph was the 60-minute team-wide effort, which saw New York hand Toronto their first regulation loss in 16 games while snapping Maple Leaf’s winger Mitch Marner’s 23-game point streak in the process.
At the outset, both teams, which entered riding a four-game win streak, established their speed and brought the intensity in front of a packed house on “Garden of dreams night” in the big apple. But the Rangers struck first courtesy of their second power-play unit, which had a newly-minted Vitali Kravtsov occupy a wing slot instead of the healthy scratched Sammy Blais.
After starting play at the point, the Blueshirts cycled the puck down low, where Kappo Kakko passed the puck across to Alexis Lafreniere, who then fed Filip Chytil on the left side for a top-shelf finish that gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 3:52 into the contest.
Another Ranger who earned an opportunity in this one was Ben Harpur, who took the sixth D-man slot in place of the healthy scratched Libor Hajek. The 27-year-old was effective by throwing his body around and finished with two blocks and three hits in 12:26 of ice time to show for it.
With 5:54 remaining, Micheal Bunting scored on a rebound shot deflected downward, making it more difficult for Shesterkin to corral it, and Toronto took advantage to tie it.
However, Igor would recover at the end of the frame, as he denied Pontus Holmberg in front of the net to keep things 1-1 after one, preceding the first of several point-blank saves we would see from the reigning Vezina trophy winner.
The second period was mainly a defensive clinic by the Rangers, who limited the Maple Leafs to a mere two shots on goal during the three straight minutes they kept the puck in the New York zone.
Starring in the brick wall in front of the guy in goal was Braden Schneider and Vincent Trocheck, who gutted out 2:52 and 2:38 minute shifts, respectively. It was a battle that reflected the desire of both clubs to make an empathic Eastern Conference statement, as there wasn’t an abundance of shots on goal due to fundamentally sound defensive hockey.
Alas, the Rangers broke the gridlock late in the period when K’Andre Miller deflected an attempted Leaf’s cross-point pass out of the zone, where Vesey got to it and scored glove side in tight on Matt Murray to put New York ahead 2-1.
The third period saw Toronto gifted an elusive opportunity for the equalizer when Chytil was boxed for holding. Still, New York’s fearsome foursome penalty-killing tandem of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Johnny Brodzinski, and Vesey superbly held down the fort for a third time to preserve the lead.
Upon leaving the box, NO72 bought into Gallant’s “chip and chase plea” as the Rangers got pucks deep and played conservative hockey in an attempt to close things out.
As time ticked away, the Leafs applied waves of offensive zone pressure. Still, they were Shesterkin’d every time, most notably when the netminder robbed Zach Aston-Reese, John Tavares, and Marner of game-tying goals just minutes apart.
Desperate for a fortunate bounce, Murray was pulled for the extra Leaf attacker with 1:48 remaining, which allowed Vesey to encapsulate his performance with an empty netter to seal the victory, officially upping the winning streak to five.
Honorable stars: Vincent Trocheck & Artemi Panarin:
We’ll start with Trocheck here, who began and bookended the game by doing what does best, and that’s winning faceoffs. The center led the team in triumphs at the dot with a winning percentage of 69.2% after winning nine of thirteen draws, the latter of which led to a Jacob Trouba outlet clear for Vesey’s game-sealing goal.
Meanwhile, the breadman didn’t get on the scoresheet tonight. Still, he made up for it with his defensive play, none bigger than his stick check on Austin Mathews late in the third period, which kept him from possibly elevating the puck over Shesterkin while in close, and tying the score.
3 Filip Chytil
I finished off Monday’s piece referencing the centermen’s impending free agency before fellow contributor Lucas Standel did a tremendous job of running with the idea and published an article outlining the team’s and the NHL’s new salary cap situations for the upcoming Summer.
Once again Thursday, Chytil showed why you should want him back beyond this season with an early power-play goal fresh off his overtime winner against the Devils.
2 Igor Shesterkin
Quality over quantity was the story of Shesterkin’s night. Although he only made 22 saves and had a mere +1.26 goals saved above expected with a 1.72 “ game score,” the goaltender was forced to come up big with jaw-dropping stops, which elicited several “Igor” chants from the captivated crowd throughout the contest.
Remember earlier in the season when NO31 admitted to losing his focus when he was not bombarded with shots? He remained razor-sharp in the third period despite just the four attempts faced in the second. If it’s indeed the case that he’s cleared this mental hurdle, opposing goalies should beware of him making a run at a second straight Vezina trophy.
1 Jimmy Vesey
Who doesn’t love a good comeback story? Ever since he signed here on a professional tryout contract in training camp, the 29-year-old has been a revelation and has turned his game into one that can be strong on both sides of the puck. Against his former team, he helped kill off three penalties on one end and sunk them with two goals on the other.
Entering Thursday, Jimmy’s 58.75% xGF ranked third on the team behind Kreider and Adam Fox, according to Evolving Hockey. If this should teach you anything, hard work pays off!