Rangers-Maple Leafs Preview
The New York Rangers may be struggling, but they're still atop the Eastern Conference.
Facing the Toronto Maple Leafs may be enough to keep them there for now.
The Rangers will try to cushion their slight conference lead Saturday night when they conclude their season series with the foundering Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
New York (46-21-7) had a 10-point lead atop the East as recently as March 4, but that's dwindled to one over Pittsburgh due to a 4-6-0 stretch coupled with the Penguins' 13-0-1 run.
The Rangers have eight games left in the regular season, one fewer than Pittsburgh. One of those contests is on the road against the Penguins on April 5 in the penultimate game for both clubs.
"We just need to play how we need to play," center Brian Boyle said. "We didn't focus on (points) all year and we shouldn't now. Just focus on being the best team we can."
That didn't happen Friday, as New York fell 4-1 to Buffalo to cap a 4-3-0 homestand.
"I'm a little frustrated with just identifying in our coverage as far as off the rush. I think that's come into the game the past couple of games," coach John Tortorella said. "Maybe the effort on that fourth guy coming back is the problem. Well, I know it is. That's just not waiting for pucks offensively. It means getting above the puck in the offensive zone and defending first. We've lost a little of that."
The Rangers defended just fine in their last visit to Toronto (33-34-8) on Jan. 14, winning 3-0 on goals from Boyle, Michael Rupp and Derek Stepan. New York is 4-0-1 in its last five games at the Air Canada Centre, winning three in a row by a combined 7-1.
Extending that winning streak Saturday would give the Rangers 101 points in a season for the first time since they had a club-record 112 in 1993-94, when they went on to win their most recent Stanley Cup. They had 100 points in 2005-06.
More production from Stepan could get the Rangers over that threshold. The second-year center has five points in his last six meetings with the Maple Leafs, including two in Toronto in January.
Marian Gaborik wasn't a factor offensively in that meeting after getting five goals and two assists in the previous three.
The All-Star right wing, who was a minus-3 on Friday, is trying to avoid his first five-game point drought since Dec. 29, 2003-Jan. 5, 2004, with Minnesota. He had three goals and five assists in four games prior to this rough stretch.
Toronto is in the midst of a more dubious dry spell - its eight-game home losing streak matches the longest such slide in franchise history, set bridging the 1984-85 and '85-86 seasons. The Leafs likely cost themselves a chance at ending a six-season playoff drought with a 5-15-2 overall stretch.
Toronto opens a four-game homestand hoping it created some momentum with a 4-3 shootout victory at New Jersey on Friday.
Phil Kessel was kept off the scoresheet by the Devils, one game after matching his career high of 36 goals set in 2008-09 with Boston.
His 76 points are already a personal best. He historically struggles against the Rangers, with nine points in 20 meetings, but he had three assists in the Leafs' two road wins over New York this season.