TORONTO - Phil Kessel couldn't have picked a better time to end his nine-game goal-scoring drought.
The veteran forward scored twice, including the game-winner in the third period, and added an assist to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers on Monday night to open an important home-and-home series between the Eastern Conference rivals.
Toronto (22-13-4) remained fifth in the East but moved four points ahead of idle Ottawa with its fifth win in six games. The Leafs also lead ninth-place New Jersey by eight points as they look to cement their first playoff berth since 2003-'04.
"It has been a while," Kessel said. "You just learn they (goals) will come eventually.
"It was an important game for us, it moved us up a couple more points up in the standings. It (playoff berth) is still far away, we still have nine games left so we have to focus on these last nine games and play well and hopefully get in."
The victory was also sweet redemption for Toronto, which couldn't hold a 2-0 lead against New York at the Air Canada Centre on Jan. 26 en route to dropping a 5-2 decision.
And they did it in dramatic fashion as New York erased a 3-1 deficit with third-period goals from Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. Stepan made it 3-3 at 9:00, converting a 2-on-1 break for his 14th of the season just as Toronto's power play expired.
But Kessel put Toronto back ahead just 39 seconds later with his 12th of the season. However, what really impressed Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle was his club's ability to defend the one-goal lead late in the game.
"I thought in tonight's hockey game and specifically in the last five or six minutes that's probably as well as we've defended and played in a tense situation with a one-goal lead," he said. "We did a lot of things right... there were a few crazy bounces in our zone we'd like to have back but, hey, we won the hockey game.
"We're not going to critique it, I just thought our group played extremely hard, they were determined and we had a contribution from everybody."
Especially Kessel and linemate James van Riemsdyk, who also scored and added an assist.
"Anytime you can get your big guns going in a crucial game that's a nice sign for your hockey club," Carlyle said. "And that's really that in a nutshell where we get two guys that haven't had a lot of success scoring goals but have been creating offence yet tonight they were the recipients of some hard work on their part and their line was a force out there. "
Van Riemsdyk would like to follow it up with another gritty performance Wednesday night when Toronto visits New York.
"We got the first one here and that's huge," he said. "But we've got to make sure we finish the job Wednesday.
"It's going to be a tough game, we know they're going to be a desperate team and that's the way we need to play if we want to be successful."
The Rangers (19-16-4) remain tied with the idle New York Islanders for seventh in the East with 42 points.
"I thought the most important part was when we tied it 3-3 we didn't play with it," said Rangers head coach John Tortorella. "We can't have a breakdown like that two shifts after we tie the game.
"I think if we play with the tie and keep going about our business as we were, we have a much better chance to win the hockey game. I actually didn't think we were that bad. We had some breakdowns but I don't think we were that bad tonight."
Ryan O'Byrne also scored for Toronto, now 11-7-2 at the ACC.
Nash finished with two goals for New York, which fell to 7-10-2 on the road this season.
"That next shift after a goal is so important and we didn't get the job done," Nash said. "We're a desperate hockey team.
"We're desperate for points and 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 that big goal."
Van Riemsdyk had the lone goal of an overly cautious first - Toronto outshot New York 8-7 but the Rangers put two shots off the post. Henrik Lundqvist made the initial save off an open van Riemsdyk in front before the Leafs forward banged the rebound in at 11:04 for his 16th of the season.
O'Byrne, obtained at the trade deadline, put Toronto ahead 2-0 at 11:28 of the second, taking a nice setup pass from Nazem Kadri and firing a shot past Lundqvist. It was his second goal of the season and first with the Leafs.
Nash cut Toronto's lead to 2-1 at 14:55, driving to the Leafs' net and recording his 16th of the season. But the Leafs regained their two-goal advantage on Kessel's power-play goal at 19:18, his 11th. Kessel's wrist shot eluded Lundqvist with van Riemsdyk parked in front.
Nash made it a one-goal game again at 2:50 of the third before Stepan tied it at 9:00.
NOTES - Lundqvist had allowed two or less goals in 10 consecutive starts prior to Monday's game... Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury sustained Thursday against Philadelphia. Lupul had been the Leafs' hottest player prior to his injury, registering eight goals and six assists during a seven-game points streak... The Leafs wore their third jersey for the seventh of eight games this season.