What was once a distant dream now appears to be inching closer to reality. Â The Toronto Maple Leafs, considered by many in pre-season polls to be among the NHL’s worst teams, are right in the thick of the playoff hunt, and look to continue to defy the logic and keep the run going against the banged up Pittsburgh Penguins tonight on Hockey Night In Canada.
The Maple Leafs continue their unlikely push for a playoff spot tonight when they host the Penguins. Â Not only are the Leafs defying expectations, but they’re doing it despite being active sellers through the start of February.
The Leafs are 6-2-2 in their last ten games, and find themselves 6 points out of the 8th and final playoff spot.
The Penguins meanwhile continue to attempt to adjust to life without some of their top stars. Â Having already lost Evgeni Malkin for the season, and Sidney Crosby for a still undetermined length of time, the Pittsburgh continues to be hammered by the injury bug (more on that in the injury report). Â The Pens are 2-6-2 in their last ten games, and are coming off a 4-1 loss to Carolina last night, a game in which goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled after giving up three goals on just 11 shots.
Hot Players/Players To Watch
Tyler Kennedy: In the absence of some of Pittsburgh’s top forwards, Tyler Kennedy has stepped up and chipped in on the offensive side of the game. Â Kennedy is a good two-way forward who isn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas in order to manufacture offense.
Kris Letang: Voted a starter in the All Star Game (and deservedly so) Letang has developed nicely into the type of puck moving, offense manufacturing defenceman the Penguins had hoped when they drafted him. Â He hasn’t exactly been lighting it up lately, but he is always a dangerous player, particularly on the power play.
Alex Kovalev: Perhaps the sole reason I changed the title to include “players to watch.” Â The Penguins made a low risk high reward type signing by bringing Kovalev back to the city where he enjoyed much success. Â It remains to be seen if the move will shake him out of his lethargic play, but it may well be his last shot to prove he still has it.
Phil Kessel: A streaky scorer, Kessel is finding the back of the net regularly after bumping the slump last week. Â Kessel has six goals in his last five games, and played arguably his best game as a Maple Leaf in Montreal on Thursday, at a time when the team needed it the most.
James Reimer: Reimer continues to be the cinderella type story of the Maple Leafs this year. Â Someone that most every Leafs fan respected for his strong work ethic and hard not to like personality, Reimer has seized his opportunity to win a starting job in the NHL, and hasn’t looked back since. Â Reimer is 5-0-2 in his last seven starts.
Tyler Bozak: Three points in his last two games, including a monstrous effort against the Canadiens in a near must win game on Thursday, may just be what the doctor ordered for Tyler Bozak. Â His second year in the NHL hasn’t exactly been the smoothest for the young centre, but his chemistry with Phil Kessel could be lethal if the two were to get their game going at the same time.
The Goalie Match-Up
Brent Johnson will likely get the start for the Penguins after Marc-Andre Fleury started last night’s game. Â Johnson is 9-5-2 on the season with a goals against of 2.26 and a save percentage of .917. Â Johnson is 4-3 lifetime against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Reimer, meanwhile, has been a breakout star for the Leafs this season. Â He sports a 10-4-2 record with 2.24 goals against, and an accompanying .931 save percentage.
Penguins: Sidney Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (knee), Paul Martin* (upper body), Brooks Orpik (finger), Mark Letestu (knee), Mike Comrie (hip), Aaron Asham (concussion), Chris Kunitz (lower body), Eric Tangradi (concussion), Nick Johnson (upper body)
Leafs: Colton Orr (concussion), Jonas Gustavsson (heart procedure)
*Indicates player missed last night’s game. Â Status for tonight uncertain.
Keys To The Game:
This one seems relatively simple from the outside looking in. Â The Pittsburgh Penguins are a team that is banged up. Â Their injury list took longer to type than the rest of this article did. Â They also had a rough go of things only 24 hours ago against the Carolina Hurricanes, which can lead you to perhaps make two assumptions. Â First of all, they may be tired, and second they may be a little shot in terms of confidence.
When it comes to Toronto, it couldn’t be more different. Â The Leafs are riding high since the All Star break, and are winning big games when it matters most at the moment. Â Players are breaking out of slumps and the team feels comfortable in front of goalie James Reimer. Â Couple that with the fact that their playoff hopes are still alive, and this team should have more than enough confidence going into tonight.
For the Leafs, it would be wise to get off to a hot start. Â And while that can be true of any given game, the fact that Pittsburgh comes into the ACC tonight in the situation they do may make a perfect opportunity for the Leafs to pounce early, and establish the flow of the game.
Tonight’s game is at 7PM on CBC’s Hockey Night In Canada.