Matthews delivers in return, lifts Leafs past Rangers
NEW YORK — It turns out that having one of the best players in the league return to your lineup can make an immediate impact for a team that’s been struggling on the road.
Auston Matthews had a goal and an assist in his first game since Dec. 9 as the Toronto Maple Leafs earned a 3-2 victory against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night in each team’s final game before the league’s three-day holiday break.
The Leafs had lost four straight on the road without Matthews, who missed six games with a concussion. But last season’s Calder Trophy winner as Rookie of the Year looked like he didn’t miss a beat, assisting on William Nylander’s first-period goal and scoring a beautiful goal in the second period using quick hands and patience to beat Henrik Lundqvist.
“He looked like his usual self,” said Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, who had two assists.
“When we get (Matthews) back, we’re a much deeper team,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “That makes a big difference.”
The real heroes for the Maple Leafs were the team’s assistant coaches watching the game from the press box, who triggered a key offside challenge that swung the game.
J.T. Miller scored for the Rangers with 8:35 remaining to cut the Maple Leafs’ lead to 3-2. Forty-four seconds later, Michael Grabner appeared to tie the game at 3, beating Frederik Andersen, who stopped 30 shots, off the rush with a wrist shot, but the goal was overturned when video review showed New York forward Kevin Hayes offside when Grabner entered the zone.
The Rangers would not get close to the tying goal again, as a late penalty submarined their chances to score with Lundqvist on the bench for an extra attacker in the final minute.
“Unfortunately on our non-tying goal there, (Hayes) was a little offside,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “It sort of took that rhythm away there at the end.”
After Nylander gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead with 2:46 remaining in the first period, defenseman Ron Hainsey’s blast from point on the power play 50 seconds into the second period pushed the advantage to 2-0.
Andersen opened the door for a comeback less than two minutes later, as he misplayed the puck near his net and allowed Jimmy Vesey to score on a wraparound to cut the lead in half.
Matthews’ 14th goal in 27 games this season with 8:38 remaining in the second period proved to be the winner, as he found himself uncovered at the net with the puck on his stick, waited for Lundqvist to drop and stashed a backhand shot into a gaping net.
“He was left alone there, so I felt like he was going to have way too much time,” said Lundqvist, who stopped 34 shots and has faced at least 35 shots in five straight starts. “I kind of tried to poke it away. He’s the wrong guy to face one-on-one in front of the net. He had a really good game. It felt like he was all over us.”
The Rangers (19-13-4) head to the break with two straight losses but feeling good about sitting in a playoff spot after a calamitous first three weeks. The Leafs (22-14-1) have two of three and will return from the respite with three straight road games before enjoying a six-game homestand at the start of January.
“We’ll take the rest,” said New York captain Ryan McDonagh, whose team was playing its fifth game in nine days. “We’ve been playing a lot of hockey here. It’s not going to get any easier as we continue.”
“We’re a good hockey club that’s getting better,” Babcock said. “We still have lots of work to do. We look like a young team a lot, when we start turning the puck over and doing silly things. We haven’t been as consistent as we like, but I think we’ve got a good hockey club that’s going in the right direction.”
NOTES: Leafs C Auston Matthews played for the first time since Dec. 9 after missing six games. ... Leafs LW Kasperi Kapanen was scratched to make room for Matthews in the lineup. ... The Leafs also scratched D Martin Marincin and LW Josh Leivo. ... Rangers C Boo Nieves returned to the lineup after a two-game absence. He replaced RW Jesper Fast, who will miss the next two to three weeks with a quad strain. ... Rangers D Steven Kampfer hasn’t played since Nov. 28. ... Rangers C Mika Zibanejad played only one shift in the third period. Alain Vigneault said he felt the other forwards he used were better.