Don't look now, Leafs get red-hot Rangers next

After dropping two straight games to defending Stanley Cup champion Boston, the Leafs next face the...

After dropping two straight games to defending Stanley Cup champion Boston, the Leafs next face the red-hot New York Rangers, winners of 10 of their past 12 games.

Rob Longley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:40 PM ET

It was a nice diversion from the day-to-day practice grind — an afternoon skate in Central Park on a brilliant sunny, Sunday afternoon in Manhattan — as the Maple Leafs tried to put the previous night behind them.

The players seemed to enjoy the workout, with their fathers still along on the two-game road trip to watch and pose for pictures on the ice afterwards. But given the size of the rink and the conditions, there wasn’t much chance for some serious work on the areas that conspired against them the past couple of games.

After back-to-back losses to the still superior Boston Bruins, reality could hit hard once again for the young Leafs on Monday night at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, winners of five in a row and looking little like the team Toronto beat in its late October visit the Big Apple.

For the most part, the Leafs were ready to put the Bruins experience behind them and look at returning to what worked well for them. While a two-game losing streak is hardly cause for panic, the way in which Boston took away what the Leafs had done so well earlier in the season is at the least concerning.

“Obviously, we’ve got to limit (opponents’ shots) and we’ve got to bury our opportunities,” said Phil Kessel, who is no longer the solo scoring leader in points (32) now that Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux has caught him. “If we can score one or two, the game changes. When we are playing our game, we are a tough team to beat.”

Except for the Bruins, of course, who have handed the Leafs 40% of their 10 regulation losses this season. The natural extending fear is that future opponents will figure out a way to do just what Zdeno Chara and the rest of the Bruins defenders did the past two contests.

The game tape is readily available after all and the way Boston slowed down the Leafs in the neutral zone to throttle down their speed may just become the tactic of choice for future opponents.

“It’s been a little tight lately, I’m not getting as many good chances and opportunities,” Kessel said following the skate at the Trump Lasker rink at the far north end of Central Park. “When I do get them, I’ve got to bear down.”

Kessel and his linemate Joffrey Lupul may reside near the top of the league scoring, but against the Bruins, they have one goal in four games. Kessel, who was drawing praise from Leafs coach Ron Wilson earlier in the year for his improved defensive play, has gone minus-five the past two games and now is in minus territory overall (minus-1) for the first time this season. Wilson is all for a boost in production but isn’t about to heap any more pressure on Kessel, who still has a share of the league lead in goals (16).

“I guess we’ve gotten to the point where (people) think Phil is going to score four points every night,” Wilson said. “It’s just not possible. The Bruins do a very good job against Phil, no doubt about that. Tomorrow night isn’t going to be any different. The Rangers are as hot as anybody in the league so we are really going to have to dig in and play hard.”

It’s certainly turning into a difficult start to December for the Leafs. After facing the Rangers — who have won 10 of their past 12 — they return home to take on the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night. That third game in four nights is often a killer, especially when the final one comes in a back-to-back situation.

With the two latest losses, the Leafs still have a respectable 30 points, but in a suddenly deeper Eastern Conference, their cushion on a playoff spot is not so plush. The Leafs are currently in sixth place, one point up on Buffalo and three on Washington.

But where things get interesting are the ninth and 10th place teams — Ottawa and Montreal — who are each three points behind. The sooner the Leafs get things pointed in the right direction, the better.

“It’s just about doing all the right stuff and the small details,” said goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, who Wilson said will get the start against the Rangers. “We know we are a good team with a lot of skill and I’m sure we’ll get back to that.

“It’s so tight in the standings. When you’ve got a chance to get a couple of points, you need to take them.”


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