NEW YORK — A healthy Auston Matthews clearly makes a difference as the Rangers learned in a tense late-December battle with the Maple Leafs.
Matthews led Toronto to a 3-2 victory against New York in his first game back since suffering a concussion on Dec. 9. He scored the winning goal midway through the second period and the Leafs held off a late push.
"Having one of the best players in the world back in the lineup is a pretty nice Christmas gift," veteran forward Matt Martin said.
Matthews sat out the previous six games. The top pick in the 2016 draft made a pretty move just outside the crease to give the Maple Leafs a 3-1 lead at 11:22 of the second period. Zach Hyman and William Nylander assisted on the play.
"The lineup is better and deeper and when you get Matty back it is what you do and (Zach) Hyman was what he was," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "Willy (Nylander) is a much better winger than he is at centre at this point in his career and when you get him back we are a much deeper team. Obviously, that makes a big difference, plus we had a chance to freshen up."
Jimmy Vesey and J.T. Miller scored for the Rangers, and Henrik Lundqvist made 34 saves that included two breakaway stops on Matthews and James van Riemsdyk. New York dropped only its third game at Madison Square Garden in the last 15 contests.
The Rangers appeared to have tied it at 3 at 12:09 of the third period. Michael Grabner snuck a shot between Anderson’s pads. However, Babcock challenged the play and the call was overturned after the referees determined Kevin Hayes was offside.
"There were definitely other chances in the game besides that to tie it up," Rangers defenceman Brady Skjei said. "We just came up a little short."
Nylander scored the game’s first goal at 17:14 of the opening frame when Matthews delivered a backhand pass to set up a one-timer. Matthews missed a point-blank opportunity moments before he set up Nylander.
"We wanted to focus on playing well for 60 minutes," Matthews said. "Then have a nice three-day break."
Vesey was able to steal the puck from Andersen to make it 2-1 at 2:37 of the second period. Vesey banked the puck in off Andersen as he tallied his eighth of the season and extended his point streak to three games.
Maple Leafs defenceman Hainsey scored a power-play goal 50 seconds into the second period to give Toronto a 2-1 lead. The veteran defenceman blasted a one-timer from the right point while van Riemsdyk provided a screen in front. Lundqvist argued he was interfered, however Rangers coach Alain Vigneault chose not to challenge the play.
"We are not one of the top teams," Lundqvist said. "We are one of those teams that are going to battle really hard to get in, so we need the best effort every night to have a chance. We came a little short here against a really skilled team. The good thing is we never gave up and we worked really hard, especially in the second half of the game, to try to come back."
Late in the second period, Lundqvist mishandled the puck which led to a Nazem Kadri scoring chance at 19:36. Lundqvist appeared to have made the save while standing behind the crease. After a video review, the referee’s announced the call of no goal on the ice would not be overturned.
Pavel Buchnevich made a no-look backhand pass to Miller when the Rangers scored their second goal at 11:25 of the third period. Miller extended his individual point streak to six games against Toronto.
Miller, replaced Mika Zibanejad on the top line for most of the third period. The Swedish centre returned from a concussion on December 19th, but only saw the ice for 36 seconds in the final frame.
NOTES: Rangers announced on Friday that forward Jesper Fast suffered a quad strain against the Devils and will miss the next two to three weeks. . Boo Nieves returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch the previous two games. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh skated in his 499th NHL career game. . New York scratched defenceman Steven Kampfer . Toronto scratched forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Jose Leivo as well as defenceman Martin Marincin.
Rangers: Host Washington Capitals Wednesday.
Maple Leafs: Visit Arizona Coyotes Thursday.