The New York Rangers handed the Leafs their first regulation loss of the season thanks to a 2-1 victory Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Ruslan Fedotenko and Artem Anisimov scored for the banged up Rangers (2-2-1) who were without leading scorer Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal and Chris Drury.
Colby Armstrong replied for the offensively challenged Leafs (4-1-1), notching his first of the season.
There wasn’t a shortage of storylines coming into the game:
1. Battle of the backups
The way they played you wouldn’t have known both teams iced their backup goalies.
Jonas Gustavsson finished with 30 saves for Toronto while Martin Biron turned away 24 of his own and picked up his first win of the season.
Despite making some key stops late in the game, Biron had plenty of support from Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto who combined for 13 of the team’s 30 blocked shots.
On the other end, Gustavsson had to earn every save as the Leafs played as if they were handling a grenade all night.
Toronto gave the puck away 11 times and the number of odd-man rushes must have been close to double digits as well.
A nutshell example of the Leafs’ dismal defensive play occurred midway through the second when New York failed to convert after breaking in three-on-one, but regained the puck after a terrible giveaway and got another scoring chance.
2. Bozak benched
Another member of the Leafs’ first line was banished to the bench as Tyler Bozak sat out a good portion of the third period and finished with 13:05 of ice time overall.
Phil Kessel received the same treatment from coach Ron Wilson last week after a poor showing against the Pittsburgh Penguins but rebounded the following night against the Rangers, scoring the winning goal in overtime.
Bozak’s benching started the musical chairs as fourth-line centre Mike Zigomanis saw time on the first line while Nikolai Kulemin jumped up alongside Kessel and Kris Versteeg late in the third.
It’s still early in the season and the struggles of a young player like Bozak are not unusual, but without many options down the middle, Toronto will need the second-year pivot to quickly regain his form.
3. Avery’s antics
Sean Avery is a human highlight reel, but not for his slick dekes or sharp shooting.
Coming into Thursday’s affair, Avery’s bravado was on full display following a slashing incident on Toronto’s Mike Komisarek in their match last Friday.
Although Avery was noticeable at times, his often-renegade behaviour was kept in check and the chorus of boos expected from Leafs Nation were muted.
He was a factor on the Rangers’ first goal as he battled in the crease alongside Fedetenko, who eventually poked the loose puck over the goal line after Gustavsson lost sight of the puck.
And while he was relatively disciplined, the agitator took a slashing penalty late in the first period, prompting loud cheers from the quiet Air Canada Centre crowd.
4. Versteeg’s slump
It was another point-less performance for the speedy left winger, although he wasn’t without opportunity.
With less than 10 minutes remaining in the third, Versteeg was sent in all alone but was stymied by Biron as he tried to snap the puck bottom corner.
He also had a couple shining opportunities to break his slump in the second period when he redirected a pass on goal while on the power play, but was stopped by the right pad of the Rangers’ goalie.
Later in the second he fed a pretty backhand saucer pass over a sprawled out Rangers’ defender but Kessel wasn’t able to shovel it past Biron.
The silver lining for the first-year Leaf was his penalty killing, as he helped Toronto kill off two shorthanded situations.
Toronto will be back in action on Saturday when they meet the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wachovia Center.