Nothing beats slaughtering Cindy “headjerk” Crosby and his fellow flightless Birds. Nothing.
I think we’ve come to learn that – play your back-ups against the Blue and White as much as you want on any other night – don’t underestimate the Maple Leafs if it’s Saturday night. The Leafs now boast a 9-5-1 record on Hockey Nights in Canada as compared to their 12-20-9 record during the rest of the week. So as much as they may exacerbate your already depressing work week, at least they don’t ruin your weekends. On this Valentine’s day affair, the lowly Leafs were by no means their lovable selves from the opposition’s perspective.
If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought the Maple Leafs were the ones in playoff contention. A Leafs team that, at least in my view, has often lacked inspiration due to a lack of purpose, were the far hungrier side last night. A 5-0 third period in the Leafs‘ favour was the direct result of some absolutely horrid defensive coverage by a listless Penguin defense and the cohesive puck movement of a Maple Leafs team that played with an impressive level of togetherness and resolve when rallying from an early two goal deficit. The Blue and White showed that Octoberesque unwillingness to quit despite a multi-goal deficit.
Dominic Moore and Jason Blake was again the duo that piloted a club in need of a strong third period showing. Everything’s clicking for Blake offensively at the moment and the 21 goal man is exuding confidence at both ends of the rink. 30 goals suddenly seems well within reach and the once persona non grata appears to be winning over much of Leafs Nation as he justifies his paycheque with timely and often stunning finishes. And not enough can be said about Moore’s industry and brilliant two-way game that is the bedrock of his line. Moore played a role in both of Blake’s goals, to no one’s surprise.
Blake found himself in acres of space, one on one with MA Fleury, at least three times tonight, partly because the Pens’ d-corps was just totally out of it as of the third period and also because Blake does an excellent job of losing his marker and sneaking in behind opposing defenses. What will surely leave Pens fans shaking their heads was their team’s lack of response or even attempt at a response after suffering the double dosage of Jason Blake. To his credit, Cindy seemed to be the only Pen with any eagerness to try to turn the sweeping tide. John Mitchell, Matt Stajan (who has now tied a career-high in points) and Alexei Ponikarovsky continued to pile on a Pens team that called it a night after a devastating 18 seconds in a game they controlled for the first 40 minutes.
*Note – with Nik Antropov’s goal that narrowed the gap to 2-1, Antropov has become the scoringest player of all the Penguins’ individual opposition this season. Antropov has 4 goals and 4 assists for 8 points in 4 games played against Crosby and Co. Blake isn’t far behind with 3 goals and 3 assists in those contests.
On the defensive side of the puck, it was a strong by-committee approach in combatting the efforts of Crosby and Malkin, both of whom have had their fair share of success against the Maple Leafs this season to understate it. Ron Wilson was trying to counter with Luke Schenn as much as possible but the minutes among blue-liners were evenly spread, with even Jonas Frogren posting a 16 minute night. Ian White again led all Leaf blue-liners with 23 all-situation minutes and a resounding +5. White and Blake were perhaps the two unlikeliest of top performers pre-season but have been nothing short of terrific since around December onwards.
I think it’s patently clear where this Pens team falls short and that’s in the grit and strength of character department. Perhaps Cherry was onto something when he suggested post-game that the losses of Colby Armstrong and Ryan Malone have had a far greater impact than anyone could have anticipated. Are the Pens the next Sens? All signs point to yes.