Blueshirts Bring Leafs Down to Earth

Rangers 2, Maple Leafs 1

When Toronto’s Kiddie Korps puts its mettle to the metal, the high-speed Maple Leafs offense is difficult to break.

But not for the Rangers; at least not last night in Canada’s Queen City.

As Professor Alain Vigneault would teach you in Winning Hockey 101, there’s more to hockey than one-way offensive stick-handling in the Toronto tradition and, yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as defense.

Therefore, no matter how heart-throbbing coach Mike Babcock’s O For Offense Maple Leafs may be, there are ways and means to beat it. Although it required a shootout, the Blueshirts prevailed, 2-1.

All you had to do was be at Air Canada Centre last night to comprehend just how well the Seventh Avenue Skaters caught up to the Maple Leafs in the third period on J.T. Miller’s score, just after the Rangers power play had ended.

What followed was one of the most penultimate, zany back-and-forth — incredible save after incredible save — overtimes imaginable. Yet nobody scored.

So, the only encore available was the shootout and, finally — ultimately — Henrik Lundqvist beat Fred Andersen in the shootout and the Blueshirts jetted home with the two points. They next meet the New Jersey Devils at The Rock tomorrow in a rare late afternoon contest.

OVERVIEW: It’s anyone’s guess — and only a guess — as to which team the Rangers will face in the opening playoff round. That said, it behooves the Blueshirts to acclimatize their style to a variety of rival possibilities. Which is why Toronto offered a worthwhile test of New York’s defensive potential. Keeping the Leafs down to one goal says a lot about how well the Blueshirts are playing.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

1. HAMMERIN’ HANK: Henrik Lundqvist had to match Fred Andersen save for save on the best night the Toronto goaltender has had this season, Each goalie starred in the pulsating overtime period, but it was Henny who prevailed in the shootout. He made 32 saves for his 402nd career win. “Hank made one big save after another,” said MSG Networks analyst Steve Valiquette.”Then he won the game with the better saves in the shootout.”

2. MARVELOUS MATS: If you want to start a shootout with a victory, you want diminutive Mats Zuccarello there for you. He had to be especially good against the sizzling hot Andersen but he found an opening and set the Blueshirts on the road to a shootout win.

3. MIKA MAKES IT: After Auston Matthews had tied the shootout, the Rangers needed another red light to go ahead. Mika Zibanejad sealed the deal by beating Andersen and then Lundqvist wrapped up the win.

4. J.T. JUST TERRIFIC: All signs in the third period signaled shutout for Andersen even after a Rangers power played seemed to have fizzled. But seconds after the PP ended, J.T. tied the score and from then on it was up to the visitors to do their thing; which they eventually did.

SPECIAL THRILLS: The new three-on-three overtime format can be thrilling, but this one had to be one of the best ever-ever-ever. There were chances galore for the Rangers and Leafs.The following are just a few of many close calls for New York:

A) J.T. Miller roars in all alone and then loses control of the puck at the last second.

B) Michael Grabner does likewise and breaks his stick on the net.

C) Kevin Hayes sets up Chris Kreider, but CK misses the pass.

BEST SAVE: Lundqvist’s stop on Matthews’ late overtime breakaway was the topper, although there were several other beauties in the extra session. But when King Henrik stopped Nazem Kadri on the Leafs third try, it was game-over!

BEST GOAL: Call it a “Garbage Goal” if you will, but the Rangers had to get off the “schneid” in the third period and it was Miller who got the rubber over the goal line before Andersen could come up with another spectacular stop.

TURNING POINT: See either Best Save or Best Goal.

WHAT THEY SAID

1. ALAIN VIGNEAULT: “We played the right way; had a great first period. We said going into the third to continue the way we played and we’d be all right. Both teams had great looks in the overtime and Hank made some incredible saves. Our team is playing the right way; moved the puck well and had great looks.”

2. HENRIK LUNDQVIST: “It was a fun game, but they are a tricky team. We did a lot of good things tight and found a way to win. I try to keep my focus real simple right now and that’s what it comes down to; especially on the breakaways and the shootout. As for the shootout, I try not to get emotional and stay level. Meanwhile, our guys helped take off any pressure.”

3. J.T. MILLER: “We outplayed them for most of the game, but their goalie played great. The overtime was crazy and was nerve-wracking, but pretty fun to watch.”

4. MSG NETWORKS JOE MICHELETTI: “It was an unbelievable game and the Rangers deserved to win it.”

5. MSG NETWORKS STEVE VALIQUETTE: “Were it not for Andersen’s big saves early in the game, it would have been over in the first period in the Rangers favor.”

COMING ATTRACTIONS: The “Battle Of The Hudson” resumes on Saturday when Vigneault steers his Good Ship Ranger across the big river for a meeting with the Devils at Prudential Center. Game Time: 5 PM. Coverage begins at 4:30 PM on MSG+.

BOTTOM LINE: A special kind of strategy is required when facing a playoff-desperate team such as the Maple Leafs. The Blueshirts figured it out and now it’s “Ditto” for the Devils on Saturday at The Rock.