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Despite SO loss, Leafs inch closer to playoff spot

by Dave Lozo

NEW YORK – With 3:32 elapsed in the second period Wednesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs had 16 shots on goal against the New York Rangers.

Toronto didn't register another shot during the next 24:23 of game time and only attempted four shots during the stretch. The Rangers scored a pair of goals during the Leafs' drought to erase a deficit in a game they would eventually win 3-2 in a shootout at Madison Square Garden.


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The Leafs' shot total on the MSG scoreboard read "16" for nearly an hour in real time, but it was something coach Randy Carlyle said he didn't notice.

"I didn't even know that stat," Carlyle said. "Stats are for you guys. I'm not going to worry about it. We got a point and we're going to move on."

Center Tyler Bozak admitted the Leafs' shot total caught his eye while he was on the bench.

"I remember looking up in the second period and seeing it at 16," Bozak said. "Then in the middle of the third I looked it up, and it was still at 16. I was thinking to myself, 'Are they screwing up or have we not got a shot?'"

As luck would have it, Phil Kessel tied the score at 2-2 on the Leafs' 17th shot midway through the third period to help get the game to a shootout. Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi coughed up the puck at the attacking blue line and it led to a 2-on-1 with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk.

Kessel was able to finish a pass from van Riemsdyk for his 14th of the season. It was Kessel's fourth goal against the Rangers in this home-and-home series that saw the Leafs grab three of four points and further solidify their hold on a Stanley Cup Playoff spot.

The Leafs have 49 points in 40 games, seven more than the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets, who have played one more game than Toronto.

Despite the nearly 25-minute gap between shots, Carlyle said his team played a 53-minute game Wednesday, but was happy with the overall result from the two games with the Rangers and getting three of four points.

"The big picture that's what happened, but you try to do an analysis of how you played tonight," Carlyle said. "I think that we played very well for about 53 minutes of it. There were about 7-8 minutes in the second period where we let the game get away from us. They gained momentum from their power play and we lost momentum from ours. We didn't create any zone time and it kind of changed the flow of the game.

"We didn't play fast like we normally do, and consequently we gave up two goals."

Kessel's goal that put the Leafs ahead 1-0 early in the second period was unassisted, but defenseman Dion Phaneuf made a nice play by carrying the puck down low and making a dangerous pass to the middle of the ice. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan intercepted the pass, but before he could shovel it out of harm's way, Kessel whacked it off his stick and past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

The Leafs picked up two more shots before the offensive lull that sparked the Rangers' comeback. Carl Hagelin slammed home a loose puck at the side of the net against an clearly exhausted Leafs unit of five midway through the period, then defenseman Ryan McDonagh danced around Leafs forward Nazem Kadri at the blue line and beat goaltender James Reimer with a long wrist shot through a screen a little less than six minutes later.

Just like the Rangers, the Leafs had a day off between Monday's game at Air Canada Centre, but heavy legs were evident on the Toronto side.

"I think we might've got a little tired there for a bit," Bozak said. "There were probably 8-10 minutes where we didn't play our game and it came down to hurting us in the end. The good thing is we didn't get discouraged. We battled back we were able to get a point."

Center Mikhail Grabovski started the game on the Leafs' fourth line with Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, but played well enough in Carlyle's eyes to warrant moving up to different lines and even had a shift in overtime at four-on-four. Grabovski went third in the shootout, but his attempt to beat Lundqvist through the legs was foiled by the goaltender's left pad.

"It's still early. Things can change so fast. We're not in it yet. There are still eight games left and we have to play good hockey. We're just focused one game at a time." -- Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak

Despite scoring 52 goals over the past two seasons, Grabovski has found himself on lower lines at times this season, but Carlyle liked what he saw against the Rangers.

"I thought he played fairly well," said Carlyle, whose team is 0-5 in shootouts this season. "I thought he was on the puck. I thought he showed more desire and more effort out there. He was very noticeable."

The Leafs' magic number for clinching their first playoff berth since 2004 is eight points, either earned by Toronto or lost by the Jets. It would take a monumental collapse or a historic run by a team outside of the top eight right now to track down the Leafs, but they aren't ready to start thinking about a first-round opponent just yet.

"It's still early. Things can change so fast," Bozak said. "We're not in it yet. There are still eight games left and we have to play good hockey. We're just focused one game at a time."


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