TORONTO - The New York Rangers departed Toronto on Saturday night in first-place overall, while the Maple Leafs will have another nine days to try harder to protect a lower-rung playoff berth.
In a game that showed separation is quickly coming to the Eastern Conference, the Leafs were blanked 3-0, dropping them to 1-2 on a four-game stretch against teams directly above and below them in the standings. But New York, which has lost just twice in its past 13 games, looked the part of leaders with some seriously stingy defence. Toronto, which lost 3-2 Friday night in Buffalo, now has a couple of days to ready for the Ottawa Senators. Right after the Leafs game ended, Ottawa beat Montreal in a shoot out to move seven points ahead.
The Leafs will be hoping that the return of injured forward Tyler Bozak to the lineup on Tuesday will give them a needed boost.
"We just couldn't keep up tonight," centre David Steckel said. "The Rangers came out and hit well (27-8 was the count after one period). You have to slow bodies down and they did a good job. We compounded that by making mistakes in our end."
The Leafs saw their five-game home winning streak snapped, but have four more at the Air Canada Centre through Jan. 23.
First-liners Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul had their pointless streaks extended to three nights. The two also had a combined five points in two earlier wins in Manhattan. The Leafs did look better in the third period, with one close call in Marty Biron's crease going to video review and Mikhail Grabovski ringing one off the post from close range that at least triggered the goal light.
Coach Ron Wilson tried to ignite something by putting Clarke MacArthur back with Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, hoping MacArthur would get as hot as the other two in the past couple of games or that Joey Crabb would do likewise on left wing for Matthew Lombardi and Nazem Kadri.
"Grabbo, Kulie and I started to play really well and we had some chances," an optimistic MacArthur said. "Hopefully, we can keep it that way and start clicking."
The Rangers' reputation for hard hits was quickly sustained in the first period. They knew the Leafs had played the night before and that Wilson had elected to use the same lineup as in Buffalo, leaving fresh defenceman Jake Gardiner in the press box. Gardiner likely will be sent to the Toronto Marlies if he doesn't get back in action soon.
"(Playing Friday) shouldn't have mattered," MacArthur said. "At this time of year, that's no excuse. It was a big game for us and we have to have a better effort."
Toronto escaped a Tim Connolly penalty in the first period, but the Rangers climbed all over them again in the second period. When the Leafs tried to use their speed on a quick breakout, Mike Komisarek's rink-wide pass was broken up and turned into a 3-on-1 against partner Cody Franson. Toronto hasn't been giving up many of those rushes recently, but the red-hot Rangers didn't miss with Mike Rupp's fourth of the year. With a league-best record of 19-1-1 when scoring first, the Rangers already liked their chances of winning.
"We did hit the post, we did have some misfires right in front of the net,' Wilson said. "Grabovski had (Biron) dead to rites and could have made it 2-1, but it seemed all night we about half a step behind. We needed our speed to compete with them and they didn't allow it or we didn't have the energy.
"The fans were getting on us, but you should have seen the puck bouncing in a few of those situations."
The Leaf penalty killing was 5-for-5 and even bolder when Franson went off in the middle period, generating three short-handed opportunities, including a partial breakaway by Darryl Boyce. Toronto had its own chance when the officials caught the Rangers trying to sneak a couple of players off during an icing call. The proper alignment was restored and the Leafs won the draw, hemmed New York in and eventually forced a Michael Del Zotto tripping call. The Leafs had the puck on the doorstep a couple of times, but it kept bobbling away.
The Rangers built on their lead when light-scoring Brian Boyle got off a partial screen that fooled Jonas Gustvasson.
Biron added his third assist of the year on a great breakout pass that Derek Stepan eventually buried in the third. Biron faced just 20 shots in his 28th career shutout, second against the Leafs.