TORONTO -- The decisive sequence on Saturday night, the winning play, was in its way a lot like this entire weekend for the Rangers: Maybe not how they would have drawn it up, maybe a little more stress-inducing than was strictly necessary, but did it ever come out nicely in the end.
Tony DeAngelo finished off an Artemi Panarin feed 51 seconds into overtime, and at the end of an evening trading punches with one of hockey's hottest teams it was the Blueshirts who landed the final blow for a 5-4 overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs and a sweep of their back-to-back set coming out of the Christmas break.
The Rangers never trailed in the game, which is not to say they didn't climb out of any holes: Auston Matthews' goal with 52.1 seconds left knotted a game that the Rangers had led almost the entire night and prolonged a grueling six periods of hockey over two days into a seventh.
But once it got there, Alexandar Georgiev took the bold -- and, in real time, not universally popular -- step of keeping a puck moving rather than freezing play, and it wound up springing the odd-man rush that DeAngelo buried to win it.
The victory -- behind four points from Ryan Strome, three from Panarin and 44 saves from Georgiev -- gave the Blueshirts wins on back-to-back nights emerging from the three-day holiday hiatus, with this thriller in Toronto coming on the heels of Friday night's 5-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
In all, the Rangers trailed for 16:16 of the opening period on Friday, then didn't fall behind again.
"I think going into (Friday's) game, if we would have said we'd get a split maybe, or even three points, we would've been happy," Strome said afterward. "Four points in these two nights really changes the look of our season. I think we're right back in it. Gutsy effort."
"I'm just really proud of our guys, I really am," said David Quinn. "I just like how we gutted it out and found a way to win."
Strome had an awful lot to do with it. Playing back in his hometown, he matched his career bests with two goals and four points on the night, and heard his name called at Scotiabank Arena as the game's First Star for the second straight visit to Toronto, after scoring the overtime winner in the Rangers' most recent visit here back on March 23. He both scored and put six shots on goal for the second consecutive game.
This time his role came not at the finish but at the start of the OT winner, but the true catalyst of the whole thing was the decision Georgiev made that, at the time, not everybody thought was such a great idea. Georgiev had come across to shut down Morgan Rielly's shot on a Leafs 2-on-1 -- the last of Georgiev's 44 saves, the same number he made at this rink in his March 23 gem -- and he had the puck smothered under his glove with traffic around him, when he decided the better course of action was to keep the puck moving and avoid the defensive-zone faceoff.
"That's what I initially did, froze it," Georgiev said. "But then I saw Stromer next to me and I thought that it's better not to let them change and have a 50-50 draw. If we can have puck possession in overtime, it's a pretty big deal."
Strome admitted that initially, "I was surprised that Georgie played it to me," and Quinn, watching it all unfold from the other side of the red line, went even a step further.
"I can't tell all of you what I was yelling on the bench when he kicked that puck out," Quinn said with a smile.
"But it worked," he added. Strome was able to keep the puck away from a hunting Mitch Marner, then fire an outlet to Panarin to start the odd-man rush; Panarin's crossing pass left Tyson Barrie in pieces, and DeAngelo with a mouth-watering look at the net.
It was Panarin's third assist of the night; the Rangers' leading scorer finished with a three-point night in each game of the back-to-back. He set up both of Strome's goals in regulation, which came sandwiched in between tallies by Brett Howden (second in four games) and Mika Zibanejad (his eighth in eight games).
Matthews' tying goal was his 26th of the season and his second of the night -- he had scored just one in his first 10 career games against the Rangers. Matthews added an assist, too, on William Nylander's first-period goal, while Pierre Engvall also scored for the home side. The Leafs got 33 saves from Frederik Andersen but still saw their six-game winning streak come to an end, and lost for the first time on home ice since Dec. 4.
"We just played two really good hockey teams," Quinn said, adding of the Leafs: "And this team is as dangerous a team as there is in the National Hockey League."
And yet Quinn's Rangers won for the third time in four games and moved to 6-2-2 in their last 10 on the road. They got all of their regulation goals in the first two periods Saturday, first from Howden just 1:41 in off of Strome's feed out of the corner. Strome converted a Panarin steal to make it 2-1 at 7:59, then scored again in transition 4:37 into the second when his full-windup slapper beat Andersen clean from above the right circle.
"I scored a lot of those in junior," Strome said, "but it's been a while.
Zibanejad's tally came 2:55 before second intermission, when he faked his own slapper to open up Andersen's five-hole. That one made the score 4-2 through 40 minutes; Engvall sliced it to 4-3 with a redirection 6:22 into the third, then with Andersen on the bench and six Toronto attackers on, Matthews got a friendly tip off a Ranger stick to tie it inside the final minute.
"We've been pretty good at being resilient and fighting back after something bad happens lately," Quinn said. It helped, the Head Coach added, that in overtime "we had the right guy with the puck coming down on that 2-on-1."
The Rangers have a chance to head home and take a quick breath now, before heading right back to Canada -- out West this time for three games beginning on Tuesday, New Year's Eve, in Edmonton, with a couple dangerous players awaiting them there, too. What they accomplished over a 27-hour span on Broadway and on Bay Street has given themselves a chance to close out 2019 in style.
"For us to come in here on the road against a very good team, in a very hard building to play, and come out with the two points," said Chris Kreider, "that's big for us."