When your team comes up with the kind of bounceback performance that the Rangers did on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden; when you get goals from five different players and points from eight; when you answer an opponent's vaunted top line with your own and win that battle; when you take on one of the League's most explosive teams in your home rink and come away with a solid win behind a rookie goaltender….
When all these things come together, "Hockey is fun," in the words that rookie goaltender, Igor Shesterkin, who did not need an interpreter to get his point across.
Certainly the Garden crowd enjoyed every bit of watching their Blueshirts take down the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-3, to win a high-scoring season series against a high-scoring team, and to win for the third time in their last four games overall. Their four-game homestand is now half over, and they won for the seventh time in the last 10 games on Broadway, with visits from the Sabres and the Kings still on tap to close out the week.
On Wednesday, though, perhaps no news was happier than the return of Chris Kreider, who in the end was able to make a speedy comeback from a frightening collision with Mika Zibanejad during Saturday's victory in Detroit. Kreider missed just one game, but evidently not one beat, and his presence on Wednesday ignited his team and in particular his line:
Kreider, Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich each scored -- Kreider and Zibanejad just six seconds apart in the first period, and Buchnevich the eventual game-winner in the second -- and that trio combined for seven points and a plus-9 night while matching up against Auston Matthews and his unit and keeping a lid on that explosive Toronto threesome.
"Any time you lose a player like Kreids you're going to notice it, and you're going to notice when he comes back. I think you got a pretty clear picture of what he means to this team," Zibanejad said afterward. "He proved that over and over again tonight. He's a huge part of our team, and a leader. I think you can watch those two games, with him and without him, and see how big of a difference he makes."
"I thought all three of those guys were really good tonight," said David Quinn. "Kreider, coming back from a scary incident and missing one game -- give him a lot of credit for stepping up, and picking up really where he left off. I mean, he didn't have any rust, there was no apprehension on his part, and he had a really good night. And I thought Buchnevich was outstanding tonight too, and Mika was really good."
That line certainly had support, too, in the form of goals from Filip Chytil and Greg McKegg, as well as an outstanding night from the defense pair of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, each of whom was plus-2 on an evening that rookie duo was served an ample helping of the Leafs' top players, too. Fox led all Rangers with 22:43 on ice; Lindgren played a career-high 22:10.
Matthews wound up scoring twice, one of them coming on a late power play, to take over second place in the League with 39 goals. But he and his linemates, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, combined for a minus-9 to mirror the Rangers' top unit, and the Blueshirts, holding a two-goal lead after 40 minutes, smothered the Leafs in the third until Matthews' late tally with a man-advantage added some tension to the final minutes.
"I really liked our third period," Quinn said of a frame in which the Rangers held the Leafs to four shots over the first 15-plus minutes. "I thought we did a really good job of not backing off."
"I think we did a good job staying on top of them throughout the whole game, really," said Zibanejad. "They're a tough team and they really take advantage of the mistakes when we make them, and I thought we didn't make too many. And obviously Igor came up big when -- I sound like a broken record -- but he came up big when we needed him."
Shesterkin stopped 27 shots on this night, 10 of them in the second period when he was called upon most, to add another victory to his ledger: He became the second goaltender in Rangers history, after Cam Talbot, to earn a win in four of his first five games. "It's always good to get great goaltending," Quinn said, "and we got some timely, great goaltending."
The Leafs got 30 saves from Michael Hutchinson, stepping in for the injured Frederik Andersen, and they got the game's first goal 7:36 in, off the stick of John Tavares trailing a rush. But it was the Rangers who went into first intermission leading 3-1, after Chytil finished a perfect Tony DeAngelo setup just 74 seconds following Tavares' goal, and Kreider and Zibanejad took turns winning faceoffs to set one another up, Zibanejad at 17:18, Kreider at 17:24.
Perhaps no goal was bigger than Buchnevich's, coming near the end of a second period that the Maple Leafs had begun to take over. Shesterkin could hold off the Leafs only so long, until he couldn't get a location on the puck behind his net and never saw it come out in front to Matthews, whose backhander made it a one-goal game with 3:04 left in the period. But on the very next shift it was Brady Skjei who cut off a Matthews skate pass through the middle of his own zone, tapping it to Buchnevich for a right-circle wrister past Hutchinson to answer Matthews' goal after just 34 seconds.
"That was huge. The way we responded to their goals was really good from our side, and that's something we've been talking about," Zibanejad said. "It's easy to kind of get down on yourself when they score, and they're a really good team at riding on their momentum. I thought we did a good job killing it, and creating our own."
The Rangers' goal now is to carry their own momentum into the remainder of their Garden homestand -- games Friday night against Buffalo and Sunday against Los Angeles. On Wednesday the Rangers improved to 16-6 in their last 22 games following a loss, and playing the way they did, against the kind of opposition that was in town, hockey was fun.
"Overall," Zibanejad said, "I'm just really happy with the game tonight."