New York Rangers Marian Gaborik, middle right, celebrates a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs with teammates Carl Hagelin, right, Tim Erixon, middle, and Stu Bickel, left, during first period NHL action in Toronto on Saturday, March 24, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim
TORONTO - In a dogfight for the Eastern Conference title, a visit to Air Canada Centre was just what the New York Rangers needed.
Ryan Callahan scored the shootout winner Saturday as the Rangers beat the Maple Leafs 4-3 to stretch their lead in the conference race and extend Toronto's home winless stretch to nine games.
The Rangers captain moved in on Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson and wired a shot top corner in the third round to clinch it. Toronto's Tim Connolly gave the Leafs an edge in the second round before Brad Richards replied for New York. Rangers goalie Henrik Lunqvist then stoned Nazem Kadri to set up Callahan's winner.
"I just like the way we found a way to win. I don't think we're doing everything great. There's a lot of things to work on, but we found a way to win," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "I thought we were ugly as hell through a number of minutes, and with of the things we're doing, we have a lot of things to work on. But by killing penalties, blocking shots, we found a way to win a road game."
The Rangers lead Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division, and top spot in the conference, by three points after the Penguins lost 8-4 to Ottawa on Saturday night.
"There was a lot of back and forth, a lot of momentum swings ... We stuck with things and kept going," Callahan said. "We had a lot of big penalties at the end and were able to get two points out of it.
"I don't want to talk about the Penguins—I'm tired of talking about them. It's about us now."
Marian Gaborik, with two goals, and Brandon Dubinsky scored in regulation for New York (47-21-7). Lundqvist made 22 stops for the Rangers, while Richards added two assists.
Joey Crabb, with a goal and an assist, Cody Franson and Connolly replied for the Leafs (33-34-9), who got 30 saves from Gustavsson.
Toronto has not won at Air Canada Centre since a 6-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 6, a stretch of 0-7-2.
"We're trying to win every game regardless of whether we get booed or we get cheered," said Leafs centre David Steckel, who had two assists. "We had that mentality tonight but fell a point short."
The line of Crabb, Steckel and Connolly has been given the responsibility of checking opposing teams' top lines by Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. The trio has also chipped in offensively, as was the case on Saturday night.
"It's always nice when you can get a bit of offensive pressure on an offensive line," Crabb said. "When they're in their zone they're obviously not scoring, so the more time you can get in the offensive zone, the better defensively you're doing."
Carlyle, who took over for the fired Ron Wilson three weeks ago, has been impressed with Crabb.
"He seems to be around the puck," Carlyle said. "He's getting lots of minutes and their line is earning it, so it's a win-win situation for a young players who's starting to grow."
Both teams had chances to end it in overtime, including a shot from Toronto's Phil Kessel on a partial break that just went wide.
Gaborik scored his second of the night and 37th of the season at 4:19 of the third on a beautiful saucer pass from Richards in the slot to give New York at 3-2 advantage.
But the Rangers' lead didn't last long as Connolly followed up a shot by Crabb for his 12th of the season just 19 seconds later.
Tortorella marvelled at Gaborik's second but added his two stars need to play a more complete game.
"(Richards and Gaborik) have to play a little defence, too, and they're both capable of doing that. The third goal is probably one of the greatest goals I've ever seen, as far as what Richie did at the blue-line—to stay onside, get the puck and then saucer one to Gabby," Tortorella said. "It was just one helluva goal. But they can't get scored on twice by (Toronto's) fourth line."
Crabb gave Toronto a 2-1 lead at 6:53 of the second after the Rangers failed to clear the zone. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf kept the puck in at the point and it found its way to Crabb in front, whose shot just slid over the line behind Lunqvist.
Dubinsky tied it at 15:29 off a faceoff where the Leafs got outmuscled in front of their own net. Dubinsky fished the puck out of a maze of bodies and buried it behind Gustavsson for his ninth of the season.
Gustavsson, who was making his first start since March 11, said it's easy to get up for a game against a fellow Swede like Lundqvist.
"He's a good goalie—one of the best and he's having a really good year and you always know you've got to be sharp. It's fun to play against him but in the end you prepare yourself the same way."
A first period that saw just 13 combined shots still produced plenty of action.
Toronto opened the scoring at 9:11 off a pretty feed from Kessel to Franson on a 2-on-1 before Gaborik tied it on a shot off a faceoff in the Leafs zone that deflected off Phaneuf's stick and past Gustavsson at 12:19.
Notes: New York started a four-game road trip after a going 4-3-0 on a seven-game homestand. ... Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello fractured his left wrist in the first period of Friday's loss to Buffalo and is out indefinitely. ... Also scratched for New York were D Jeff Woywitka, D Anton Stralman, D Steve Eminger (undisclosed injury), C Chad Kolarik and LW John Scott. ... Sitting out for the Leafs were D Mike Komisarek, LW Clarke MacArthur (upper body), RW Mike Brown (thigh bruise), RW Joffrey Lupul (separated shoulder), RW Matt Frattin (lower body) and LW Nikolai Kulemin (broken finger). ... Toronto forward Ryan Hamilton of nearby Oshawa, Ont., played his first home game for the Leafs. The captain of the AHL's Toronto Marlies made his NHL debut against New Jersey on Friday. ... The Leafs wore their heritage jerseys. ... Announced attendance was 19,507.