TORONTO - Playing for the second time in as many nights, the Toronto Maple Leafs were reminded how big of a hill they're facing in the Eastern Conference standings.
The league-leading New York Rangers outhit and outmuscled the Maple Leafs during a 3-0 victory on Saturday. Backup goalie Martin Biron stopped all 20 shots he faced to complete a nice workmanlike effort by the visitors.
"We were just, it seemed all night, about half a foot behind," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "We needed our speed in order to compete with them. They didn't allow us to get some speed in some situations.
"But we just didn't have the energy to play the game we needed to play."
It made for a frustrating evening for a Leafs team that had won five straight games at Air Canada Centre. They were unable to generate quality scoring chances and found themselves pressing after the Rangers built a lead.
"We were just chipping the pucks in and they're doing the same thing to us and it's like nothing's happening," said Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur. "You're just going out there, skating around. It's a tough style.
"You can see why they win a lot of games — they just try to bore you out of the rink almost."
It's been a winning stategy for the Rangers this season. They lead the NHL with 60 points through 42 games and are on pace for the best season in franchise history.
Adding to the team's strength is the fact Biron has proven to be such a strong backup to No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist. His record now sits at 9-2-0 with a sparkling .927 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against average.
"I can't even call him a backup," said Rangers coach John Tortorella. "He's played very well. ... He has been a perfect fit for where we are as a team. He's a perfect teammate, he understands his role, he knows that Hank is the guy."
Mike Rupp, Brian Boyle and Derek Stepan scored for New York (28-10-4).
Toronto was shut out for just the second time this season and saw its record fall to 22-17-5 — good for seventh in the conference. However, it would drop out of playoff position if both Washington and Pittsburgh win games Sunday.
The Rangers effectively took Toronto's top line of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly out of the game by playing them physically.
"It was a little frustrating tonight," said Kessel. "They played well and we didn't have anything really going. Our line has not been good for a couple games now. We're going to have to figure it out I guess."
The Leafs didn't have much jump following a tough 3-2 loss in Buffalo on Friday. They managed just 12 shots on Biron through two periods and found themselves trailing 2-0 heading to the final 20 minutes.
That's a big defecit against a team as stingy as the Rangers.
"That's a big part of our game," said Tortorella. "That's the way we have to play. We're not talented enough, we're not a good enough team if we don't play the way we're supposed to play. We define that as a team. We've developed an identity as a team."
The Rangers lead was built during a pivotal second period.
Rupp opened the scoring at 3:35, completing a lovely passing play with Stepan and Wojtek Wolski on a 3-on-1 that developed after a bad line change before Boyle beat Gustavsson on a long wrist shot at 16:28. He pointed skyward in relief after ending a 22-game scoring drought.
The Leafs started the final period with some jump and appeared to break Biron's shutout bid on a low shot by Tim Connolly, but video review was inconclusive and the score remained 2-0.
"I was hugging the post, trying to seal the knees," said Biron. "I know Timmy, I played with him many years. He's really tricky. ... It trickled through my knees and I just tried to squeeze everything there. It was close.
"It was 2-0 at the time, so it was a big play for us to keep them off the board. We got fortunate it stayed out."
It was just that kind of night for Toronto.
On the very next shift, Mikhail Grabovski rang a shot off the post — bringing half the fans out of their seat after the goal light briefly flicked on. Before long, Stepan scored an insurance goal with a nice deke and ended any hope of a comeback.
"We probably needed to get the first goal to get the momentum," said Gustavsson. "They got the first one and I think they played a pretty solid game. They didn't give us chances, they always had their guys back home.
"So they made it tough for us."
Notes: The Leafs took the warmup in camouflage sweaters on Canadian Forces Night ... Toronto has gone six game since allowing a power-play goal against ... Brandon Dubinsky sat out for the Rangers with a sore shoulder ... Toronto scratched Jay Rosehill and Jake Gardiner ... Gustavsson won two previous starts at Madison Square Garden earlier this season ... Biron earned an assist on Stepan's goal ... Announced attendance was 19,617.