TORONTO — It had been two weeks since the Rangers had won a game. Heck, it had been two weeks since the Rangers had even held a lead.
And so when Ryan Strome put home Boo Nieves’ centering pass after a two-on-one had failed to lift the Blueshirts to a 2-1 victory over the Maple Leafs at 1:48 of overtime, you’ll pardon Alexandar Georgiev for feeling a little bit giddy after the club’s second victory in the past 12 games (2-6-4).
“It’s a great feeling,” said the netminder, who is 5-3-3/2.69/.923 over his 11 starts since Feb. 6. “Almost like we win the Stanley Cup.”
Georgiev was outstanding in turning in a 44-save performance that backed up his 55-save effort against these same Leafs in a 4-1 victory at the Garden on Feb. 10. He was spry and aggressive — his poke-check on Auston Matthews driving to the net from the left side just over a minute into OT was a game-saver — and gobbled up a bushel of loose pucks around the net.
But even as the Blueshirts received superior goaltending, their grit and compete were the hallmarks of this one in which a young lineup went pretty much toe-to-toe with their far more loaded opposition despite the 45-28 disparity in shots and a 104-58 overall disparity in attempts that was 82-45 five-on-five.
Honestly, it never seemed as if Georgiev was under siege and it never seemed that the Baby Blueshirts, who went with three rookie centers in Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Brett Howden behind Mika Zibanejad were cowed by Toronto’s imposing one-two-three depth down the middle represented by Matthews, John Tavares and Nazem Kadri.
How about 33 blocked shots by the Blueshirts, a team-leading seven by John Gilmour?
“We addressed it at our meeting this morning that we might not have the same skill that they have, but we could control how hard we worked,” said Brady Skjei, whose left corner shot and subsequent drive to the net created the chaos off which Pavel Buchnevich scored on the rebound for a 1-0 lead at 0:19 of the third period. “I thought we battled all night against a team with elite skill.”
Buchnevich’s goal that represented the winger’s sixth in 10 games and 18th of the season gave the Rangers their first lead in 340:54, since the conclusion of their 4-2 victory over the Devils on March 9. For this team that has scored 18 goals in the previous 10 games, that represented breathing room.
And the lead might have held up to the end, too, if not for an unseen hand pass from Mitchell Marner to Tavares that preceded No. 91’s brilliant no-look backhand feed to Zach Hyman, who then buried the puck from the left slot to tie the match at 8:33. The puck had popped high into the air after Georgiev had made a save on Morgan Rielly, Marner batted at it, and it landed at Tavares’ feed.
It was difficult to see, but there should have been a whistle and it should have been ruled no goal.
“It was a tough one for the refs to see,” said Brendan Lemieux, who played in Chris Kreider’s place on the left of Zibanejad and Buchnevich. “I was backchecking and I didn’t even realize it until I saw it on the video afterward.
“But to me, the way we worked in this one was the big thing. We’re a young team and they’ve got a lot of guys over there who make a lot of money, but we kept working all night.”
Kevin Shattenkirk, called a “beast” by partner Skjei, played his most physical game in two years as a Ranger, and one of his very best. The Blueshirts remained calm and poised against a Maple Leafs team whose motor has idled for the last two-plus months, 18-16-2 since Dec. 29, but who can still scare you with its skill.
But the Rangers were not scared and neither was David Quinn to put Howden out for a defensive-zone draw with 3.8 seconds remaining in regulation and put Nieves on in the three-on-three.
Moments later, the Blueshirts had won their first three-on-three since Oct. 11 after nine consecutive defeats and it was time for the parade.