Kessel was on the ice for four goals against and played just 12:57, his second-lowest total of the season. The Leafs lost for the 12th time in 13 games, and there was plenty of blame to go around.
"We were awful," Horachek said of his team's play through two periods. "We've got to expect more out of his line, out of him, out of the rest of the players."
The top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Kessel was on the ice for three goals against, including one shorthanded, before Horachek mixed things up in the third period. Kessel was on the fourth line with David Booth and Trevor Smith — and on the ice — when Mats Zuccarello scored the game-winner with 5:56 left.
In replacing him on the top line with Richard Panik, Horachek said he was trying to get Kessel away from New York's top defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, not sending a message to the star winger.
"I don't think that many guys played well," Horachek said. "You're just trying to mix it and make them make decisions to change their matchups."
Kessel, who leads the Leafs in points with 47 and averages 18:48 in ice time, was not made available to reporters after the loss. Along with Kessel, winger Joffrey Lupul had his ice time cut to 12:06, down from his average of 15:41.
Horachek was visibly frustrated as the Leafs dropped to 2-12-1 since he took over.
"It was lethargic, there was no effort," Horachek said. "It starts with the whole give-a-(crap) meter has to be higher."
Defenceman Morgan Rielly stuck out as a bright spot for the Leafs (23-28-4) with the first two-goal game of his career, and Stephane Robidas and Daniel Winnik each scored one. James Reimer stopped 34 of the 39 shots he faced.
"It was one of those nights where I was good but just not good enough," Reimer said.
The Rangers (31-16-5) got two goals from Zuccarello and one each from Dan Boyle, Kevin Hayes and Dominic Moore (shorthanded) along with 30 saves from Cam Talbot.
"Give the guys a lot of credit in front of me, they did a great job of staying focused and battling back and getting us the two points tonight," said Talbot, who made his fourth straight start in place of the injured Henrik Lundqvist.
Rick Nash, who's tied for the league lead with 33 goals, had three assists.
"It was kind of a different night playing playmaker," Nash said. "But it opens up room, guys were open, they worked to get to their positions, and I thought Zuccarello had a great game of doing that."
As displeased as Horachek was with the Leafs' performance through two periods, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was glad about how his team played, at least until the third period when Toronto mounted a comeback that ultimately failed.
"In the third there we got on our heels a little bit," Vigneault said. "They had a real strong push, but at the end of the night it's about finding ways to win and that's what we did."
Falling behind proved too much for the Leafs, who seemed to take a step back from the defensive progress they'd been making under Horachek.
"We got totally outplayed the first two periods, dominated I think every situation," Horachek said. "We didn't deserve tonight."
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