NEW YORK – Mats Zuccarello was essentially a shootout specialist when he made his New York Rangers debut five years ago. Now he may be the team’s most indispensable offensive player.
Zuccarello scored the tiebreaking goal with 58.3 seconds left and had two assists in the Rangers’ ninth straight win, 4-3 over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night.
“He’s on top of his game,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s been playing real well and his enthusiasm is contagious.
“There’s no doubt that he is well liked and well respected by his teammates, and I think everyone is happy that he’s playing so well right now.”
Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard also scored for New York, and Antti Raanta made 23 saves.
The league-best Rangers improved to 14-2-2, the best 18-game start in franchise history in wins and points (30). The winning streak is their third-longest overall and longest since winning 10 straight in the 1972-73 season.
Peter Holland, Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf scored for Toronto, which snapped a three-game winning streak. Jonathan Bernier stopped 26 shots.
Bernier was shaky throughout the game, surrendering rebounds. That was costly on Zuccarello’s game-winner. McDonagh fired a shot from the left point that Bernier couldn’t control and Zuccarello poked the puck into the net to decide a wild, back-and-forth contest.
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“We win as a team and lose as a team,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “Maybe (Bernier is) trying too hard.”
Holland opened the scoring with 2:03 left in the first period with a backhander from in close. The goal was his third of the season, and his second in four games.
The lead lasted all of 2:47 of game time as McDonagh tied it 44 seconds into the second period with his third of the year off of a cross-ice feed from Zuccarello.
New York took a 2-1 lead at with 6:05 left in the second as Bernier misplayed Stepan’s shot from centre-ice, and the puck rolled under the Toronto goaltender’s pads. It was the second goal from centre-ice Bernier allowed in less than a year, as Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson had a similar score on Jan. 30.
“It’s my job to be ready,” Bernier said. “I cost us two points. I let them down tonight.”
Lupul’s goal with 2:22 left in the period tied it again.
Brassard scored 3:37 into the third to put the Rangers ahead 3-2. The goal, his sixth of the season, came off a pass from Zuccarello from behind the net.
“When you (have) more confidence, you make those plays,” Zuccarello said. “It’s a nice feeling to be that confident. The whole team is like that. We have a good stretch here, so it’s a good feeling.”
Phaneuf tied it again 1:38 later with his second of the season.
NOTES: Prior to the game, there was a moment of silence for the victims of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, followed by the singing of the French, Canadian and American national anthems. … Dan Boyle and Emerson Etem were scratched by New York. … Toronto scratched Brad Boyes, Frank Corrado and Martin Marincin.