Leafs look to spoil Rangers' playoff hopes
The New York Rangers, fighting for a berth in the playoffs, can’t be too excited to face the Eastern Conference’s last-place team.
Not the way the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing right now.
Mired in the depths of the East all season long, the Leafs (27-35-12) hope to continue their hot play of late, having won of four of their past five and standing 7-3-0 over their last 10.
The Rangers (33-32-9) travel to Toronto in the second of a six-game road trip in search of their third straight win when the two meet Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre (CBC Sports, cbcsports.ca, 7 p.m. ET).
A large part of the Leafs’ recent success can be attributed to rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.
Toronto coach Ron Wilson named Gustavsson the starter for Saturday, marking the first time the netminder will face Swedish teammate Henrik Lundqvist. It also breaks the one-game alternating rotation Wilson has been using between Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the rookie.
Gustavsson made 19 saves in Thursday’s 2-1 overtime win in Atlanta, and appears to be more poised since returning from the Olympics.
The Leafs are relishing the role of spoiler, despite missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
"It’s good for our confidence," said Gustavsson, who has won six straight games while posting a 1.92 goals-against average during that span.
It is the third of four meetings between the two teams this year, with the Rangers beating the Leafs twice by a combined score of 11-3.
In addition to Gustavsson, one player the Leafs didn’t have during the two losses was right winger Phil Kessel.
Kessel, who missed the previous two meetings with a shoulder injury, has also been playing well of late. The 22-year-old sniper leads the team in scoring, and has seven goals and three assists over his last nine games.
Phaneuf helping team find 'ways to win'
Defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who made the playoffs in each of his four seasons with the Calgary Flames, has been a big part of the team’s turnaround since arriving to Toronto.
"We’ve been finding ways to win hockey games," said Phaneuf, who will also be making his first appearance against the Rangers in the blue and white. "We don’t care if it takes 60 minutes or 65, and that’s a good sign.
"We know we can be better, but with saying that every game is not going to be a perfect one, we’ll take the two points."
One player who will be standing in the way of Toronto’s sixth win in seven contests at the ACC will be Lundqvist. The Rangers netminder has been a thorn in the side of the Leafs, going 2-0-1 with a 1.30 goals-against average in the last three meetings between the two teams.
In Thursday’s 4-3 shootout win over New Jersey, Lundqvist became the first goalie in NHL history to earn 30 wins in each of his first five seasons.
"We responded well," said Lundqvist, who’s team battled back from three one-goal deficits to get a much-needed victory. "We didn’t panic, we didn’t give up."
With the win, New York moved to within three points of the eighth and final playoff spot, currently occupied by Boston. The Rangers play four of their final six games against non-playoff contenders.
"There is no sense of feeling the pressure here," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "You lose a couple of games with so few left, you’re done. You have to just go out and play."
The Rangers also sit just five points behind seventh-place Philadelphia.
"We can’t let up because of the situation we’re in," Tortorella said.
Making matters tough for the Rangers will be the fact they could be without winger Ryan Callahan, the team’s second leading scorer with 19 goals.
Callahan, who is also second in the league with 273 hits, left Thursday’s game in the second period after aggravating a left leg injury. He returned for one shift before sitting out the rest of the game, and remains a game-time decision for Saturday.