TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten a lot of mileage this season out of improved defensive play, more team toughness and significantly better penalty-killing.
But if they hope to first make the playoffs and then go deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they need their big guns to start firing.
That is exactly what happened Monday at Air Canada Centre as Phil Kessel snapped a 10-game goalless drought with two markers and James van Riemsdyk tallied his second in three games after going 10 in a row without a goal as the Maple Leafs beat the New York Rangers 4-3 at Air Canada Centre.
The Kessel-van Riemsdyk-Tyler Bozak trio led the way with six points. Kessel had two goals and an assist; van Riemsdyk tallied a goal and an assist and Bozak had one helper.
The teams meet again at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.
For van Riemsdyk, who is playing his first season with Toronto, having the opportunity to play on a line with Kessel is a thrill.
"I always knew how good of a player he was," van Riemsdyk said. "I watched him at the World Junior Championship, and then he's obviously one of the guys you see on the NHL highlights scoring goals and creating offense. He has been a fun guy to play with. He has a lot of abilities other guys don't have … he's a special player."
Kessel opened the season without a goal in Toronto's first 10 games. When he is not scoring, his detractors suggest he doesn't bring enough else to the table. Van Riemsdyk doesn't agree.
"You don't score goals in this League unless you have that competitive edge," van Riemsdyk said. "That's just white noise when people talk about him not being competitive. He's never going to be a player that is going to run guys over or put guys through the glass, but he gets in there and he's pretty strong when he gets in battles."
Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said it was not to have the players expected to score goals lighting it up for a change.
"In a crucial game, that's a nice sign for your hockey club," Carlyle said. "To get two guys who have not had a lot of success scoring goals, but have been creating offense, tonight they were the recipient of hard work on their part and their line was a force out there. We played them up against the (Brad) Richards line (with Nash and Ryan Callahan) and we were comfortable with that matchup. They did the job."
The Leafs took a 2-0 lead early in the second period on Ryan O'Byrne's first goal with his new club, but Nash would not let the Rangers fold. He scored his 16th of the season at 14:55 of the second period, blowing past Toronto defenseman Cody Franson. Then, with the Maple Leafs leading 3-1 in the third, Nash zipped past defender Mark Fraser en route to his 17th.
Stepan tied it 3-3 nine minutes into the third, but the Leafs roared back with the game-winner 39 seconds later on Kessel's 12th of the season.
"It wasn't a great play, but I was lucky to get my own rebound," said Kessel, who had scored his first of the night in the final minute of the second period via the power play.
Once again, Toronto's penalty killers played a huge role. They shut down New York's power play on two attempts and have not allowed a power-play goal in four straight games.
Nash was obviously disappointed in letting the game slip away after working so hard to tie it.
"We had a D-zone breakdown after a huge goal by Step," Nash said. "That next shift is just so important after scoring a big goal. We didn't get the job done."
That said, Nash concluded the Rangers will have to play significantly better and smarter against the Maple Leafs on Wednesday.
"We're a desperate hockey team; we're desperate for points," Nash said. "We knew we were playing a good game. The third period was good; we were all over them. It just came down to a breakdown after the big goal. We have to clean up our defensive end a bit Wednesday. I look at their goals and they were the result of our breakdowns. If we clean things up in our end I think we'll be alright."
Carlyle said his team's ability to bounce back after surrendering the lead is something that has been a trademark of this season's club.
"If you look at the stats when we have been tied and how many leads we have given up, there haven't been that many," Carlyle said. "We have found ways to get points in those games. Yeah, we've had rough spots and every team has them, but in the game we can regroup or reset and I thought tonight's game -- specifically the last five minutes -- that's probably as well as we have defended and played in a tense situation with a one-goal lead."