Leafs double up Rangers

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gunnarsson is knocked down by Rangers forward Ryan Callahan at Madison...

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gunnarsson is knocked down by Rangers forward Ryan Callahan at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., Oct. 27, 2011. (MIKE SEGAR/Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:42 PM ET

NEW YORK - It was one of the worst nights of his hockey-playing life so how could Jonas Gustavsson possibly forget the previous time he was at Madison Square Garden?

The Monster was the Man Thursday night against the Rangers, helping his team to a rousing 4-2 victory to spoil their home opener at the new-look Garden and give Gustavsson a huge shot in the arm.

It had been more than 10 months between complete-game wins for Gustavsson, who was pressed into emergency duty with the ongoing head/neck injury to

No. 1 goalie James Reimer, who missed a second consecutive start. But none of the struggles since have been worse than the night the lanky Swede let in six here before coach Ron Wilson took mercy on him and gave him the hook.

“I’d heard a lot about that game and all goalies are going to have those games,” said Gustavsson, who stopped 28 shots for the win. “If you keep thinking about those ... it’s not like I keep thinking about my shutout two years ago. What’s in the past is in the past.”

What the Leafs will be thinking about after this one is how they earned a split on what has been a trying four-game road trip to push their season record to an impressive 6-2-1, best in the Northeast Division and third overall in the Eastern Conference.

They were large points too, given that the Rangers didn’t have a regulation-time loss to the Leafs last season and figure to be one of the teams they may have to pass to contend for the playoffs.

The second period was arguably the Leafs’ best of the season, even though they had one goal to show for it, a sharp-angle shot from Matthew Lombardi that snuck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The NHL’s leading goal scorer, Phil Kessel, was denied twice on breakaways in that period, but the momentum had swung, exposing the sloppiness of a Rangers team that brought out the boo-birds by the third.

“That was a huge win for this team,” said centre Tim Connolly, who made his long-awaited debut for the Leafs and didn’t look out of place. “It really shows a lot of maturity for how young we are to just grind it out and play a really solid road game. That’s the way you’ve got to play in this league and those are important games for us.”

The hard work paid off in the third with a Joffrey Lupul goal on a scramble at 2:11 of the third to put the Leafs up 2-1 and then Clarke MacArthur’s game winner and first of the season four minutes later on a blast from the top of the circle that handcuffed Lundqvist. Mike Brown added an insurance marker later in the third.

“You don’t normally get those (kind of goals against the Rangers star),” MacArthur said. “We’ll take anything we can get against him, but he’s human.”

After withstanding the expected early burst by the Rangers in front of their festive crowd, the Leafs settled into a style designed to frustrate the Rangers. With the chewed-up ice and a slightly off Lundqvist, it worked to perfection.

The night didn’t start out so hot as Gustavsson let in one he should have had on a point shot from Rangers defenceman Dan Girardi just 6:23 into the game. It could have gotten even uglier for the Monster and the Leafs as two more pucks got by him later in the period. On both occasions, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan was whistled for goaltender interference.

Connolly didn’t get a point and struggled in the faceoff circle, but his willingness to get his nose in the thick of things helped set up Joffrey Lupul’s go ahead goal 2:11 of the third period. When the Leafs went up 3-1 on MacArthur’s goal, suddenly The Monster had, as Wilson put it, some “run support” and an important road win.

“With the exception of (injured) Colby Armstrong, this is as complete a team as you are going to get from us,” Wilson said of the return to action of Connolly and Tyler Bozak. “We’ve got enough depth. (Connolly) did a really good job. I’m glad we won so he doesn’t feel he came in and jinxed us or anything like that.”

Though he was denied on his breakaways — against one of the best one-on-one goalies in the league — Kessel did get an assist on the big Lupul go-ahead goal to give him 16 points. A road split sets the Leafs up nicely for a weekend back-to-back set — at home Saturday to Pittsburgh and in Ottawa on Sunday.

“We’re evolving as a team and learning how to play with each other,” Wilson said. “Considering the people that have been missing from our lineup, to be 6-2-1 right now, we’re very happy with where we are.”

And a Monster-sized sense of satisfaction at that.


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