|Toronto Maple Leafs' Tomas Kaberle is pursued by the New York Rangers' Ryan callahan. (Suzy Allman/QMI AGENCY)
NEW YORK - In a New York minute - 21 seconds really - the Maple Leafs’ bold new ‘let’s get it on’ approach became a meek ‘let’s get it over with’.
It was only a few days ago that coach Ron Wilson wondered how a summer off would disrupt the good karma his club put together from the trade deadline to April Fool’s Day, but it took just the past 48 hours for them to discover the true meaning of facing playoff-desperate teams. New York scored on its first shift, added two more before the opening period elapsed and answered a Dion Phaneuf goal in the third with a pair less than two minutes apart.
“We talked about the same thing, that if we got a good start we could turn the whole (Madison Square Garden) crowd against them,” Wilson said. “But that (first) was as bad a period as we’ve played all season. The last few games, the other teams have played well and haven’t played nervous. They’ve come at us really hard and unfortunately, some of our youth shows at that time. We didn’t respond physically when we needed it.”
The Rangers’ 5-1 win contained little positives for the Leafs as they head towards the season finale in Montreal, outside of Phaneuf’s goal, which was 25 games in the making here. Phaneuf prevented the first back-to-back shutouts against Toronto in seven years, but couldn’t save the Leafs from ‘clinching’ 29th.
“I’m not proud of that, being 29th” Wilson assured. “We made a push, but didn’t really make up any ground.”
The Leafs brought out the white flag at times in a shutout loss against the Flyers on Tuesday and it was certainly flapping in the first period Wednesday, other than Colton Orr going after opposite number Jody Shelley. A three-goal lead was more than enough for Henrik Lundqvist to put Swedish national team understudy Jonas Gustavsson back in his place after an OT win over the master on March 27.
The Leafs couldn’t get their speed advantage working and even the Phaneuf goal didn’t inspire them as Olli Jokinen and Aaron Voros quick restored a big lead. It translated to a disappointing end to the regular season for Gustavsson, who won just one of his first six decisions and recovered from injury and confidence issues to win seven straight in March.
Now it’s on to the last game in Montreal, with Jean-Sebastien Giguere hoping he gets better support in Saturday’s rare start in front of friends and family. Viktor Stalberg promised a better effort.
“We know we’ll have a lot of fans there and do everything we can to win that game,” he said.
It has to be better than Wednesday as Tomas Kaberle looked like he was in cement on the first shift, not giving Gustavsson a target when the goalie went behind the net and then waving at Brandon Dubinsky and Erik Christensen as they converted the giveaway into a goal.
“It was so loud, I didn’t hear anything,” Gustavsson said of trying to listen for Kaberle with his back to him, but Wilson said his goalie was not to blame. Kaberle is now minus 18 this season, while two-goal first star Christensen didn’t come out for his bows, after what looked like a painful arm injury that coach John Tortorella said was only a breathing problem.
“(The team’s start) is unacceptable at this time of year,” Phaneuf said. “It’s hard to come back from a 3-0 deficit in this league.”
Toronto couldn’t get over the centre line in the first period without being hit hard or poke-checked or in Phaneuf’s case, foiled by a blocked shot that ended up going to Jokinen for a breakaway. Gustavsson stopped that as he did about four solo Ranger rushes, but Christian Hanson didn’t catch trailer Vinny Prospal for the empty net rebound. Ex-Ranger Jamie Lundmark’s mid-ice turnover then led to Christensen’s break and a 3-0 lead.
The Rangers’ preparation for this game began midway through the second period of their 5-2 loss to Buffalo the night before when Tortorella sensed Lundqvist was a lost cause and pulled him after a perceived soft goal to make sure he was ready for the Leafs. Lundqvist said he was “surprised” to get the heave-ho and said the Sabres were simply better, but Wednesday’s result likely restored harmony on Broadway.
The Rangers, who have missed the playoffs in the same year as the Leafs only once since 1952-53, put themselves in a stronger position to dislodge either the Flyers or Bruins from playoff spots, guaranteed of getting in if they can sweep Philly in a home-and-home. In two games at MSG this year, the Rangers smacked the Leafs by a total score of 12-4.