NEW YORK -- Coming into Wednesday's crucial game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella said he was pleased with the play of Mats Zuccarello. He just wanted to see the team's recent acquisition do one thing: score.
Playing his seventh game with the Rangers this season after starting the year with Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League, Zuccarello didn't record any shots during regulation or overtime. But he scored when it mattered most, notching the lone goal in the shootout to give the Rangers a 3-2 win Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
The shootout winner, scored in the second round of the tiebreaker, beat Toronto goaltender James Reimer between the legs and gave the Rangers 44 points, good for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The sixth-place Ottawa Senators and seventh-place New York Islanders have the same number of points, with Ottawa owning a game in hand and the Islanders having one more non-shootout victory.
Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves through overtime and stopped all three Toronto shooters in the tiebreaker, ending the game with a pad save on Mikhail Grabovski, who started the game centering Toronto's fourth line before earning a chance to prolong the shootout.
"I saw [Reimer] was deep in his net. So if I deke he has a good shot to get his pad out. I just had to read off of it. It was a good feeling to see it go in," said Zuccarello, who has no goals and two assists with the Rangers this season. "We know we have Hank [Lundqvist] there. He's probably one of the best in the world in the shootout. So we were pretty confident going in."
Carl Hagelin and Ryan McDonagh scored in regulation for the Rangers while Phil Kessel scored both Toronto goals. Reimer made 26 saves in a losing effort, but the single point earned in the shootout moved Toronto closer to clinching its first playoff berth since 2004. The Maple Leafs sit fifth in the East with 49 points, seven ahead of the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets.
With a playoff atmosphere in the building, the Maple Leafs' aggressive forecheck gave New York trouble early on. Lundqvist made several big saves, including one off a quick shot from Kessel following a perfect behind-the-net feed by Tyler Bozak. The Rangers goaltender continued to make big stops in the second period, stopping Clarke MacArthur and Nazem Kadri in quick succession early in the middle frame.
But Kessel struck 1:42 into the second, swiping the puck off Ryan Callahan's stick and swatting it past Lundqvist all in one motion. When another recent Rangers acquisition, wing Ryane Clowe, dropped gloves with Mark Fraser just 24 seconds later, the pace of the game suddenly changed. Playing their fourth game in six days, Toronto quickly lost a step, going more than 24 minutes without registering a shot on net.
"I think we got a little tired there for a bit," said Bozak, who was stopped by Lundqvist in the first round of the shootout. "I remember looking up in the second period and seeing 16 [shots] and then in the middle of the third I looked up and it was still 16. I was thinking to myself, 'Are they screwing up or do we not have a shot?'"
While the Maple Leafs waded through a second-period lull, the Rangers pounced. New York tied it at 10:55 when Derek Stepan's blocked shot trickled over to Hagelin at the left side of the crease. Hagelin then fired the puck into the gaping net for his ninth goal of the season and first in 11 games.
Almost six minutes later, McDonagh made a play that brought the Rangers faithful to their feet. Handling the puck at the blue line, the defenseman made a slick move to lose Kadri before firing a long wrist shot through traffic that beat Reimer at 16:43 to give New York a 2-1 lead.
"I think Clowe was a big difference with the fight there. It kind of woke everybody up and sparked us," McDonagh said. "We're trying as a D corps to jump up and get involved in the play and create offense from the blue line."
After being dormant for more than a full period, the Maple Leafs evened the score when Kessel took a perfect cross-ice pass from James van Riemsdyk on a 2-on-1 rush and beat Lundqvist at 8:05 of the third period. The goal came on the Leafs' first shot in 24:33 of game action, during which Toronto was outshot 12-0.
"That's part of hockey. You never know what can happen. It can go that way a lot," Rangers center Brad Richards said. "We've all been in different situations. The longer you play, you see a lot of crazy things."
Both teams had chances in regulation and overtime.
Callahan had a prime opportunity with seven minutes left in regulation and Clowe off for hooking. Following a scrum in front of the Toronto net, the Rangers' captain found himself with the puck and a wide-open cage in front of him. But Carl Gunnarsson managed to get a piece of the shot and send it wide.
The best chance in overtime came when a wide-open Kadri found the puck in the slot following Dion Phaneuf's rush to the net with 1:39 remaining, only to be foiled by Lundqvist's blocker.
With the shootout win, Lundqvist has allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of his past 12 contests; he has a 7-3-2 record and .936 save percentage over that span. His clutch goaltending couldn't have come at a better time for the Rangers, who have only eight games remaining, beginning with a visit to the Islanders on Saturday night.
"It was ugly at times, but I really like the way they responded," Tortorella said. "I’m happy they grinded away and found a way. It’s a good team we were playing. I’m happy they found a way to get two points."