The Leafs welcomed the Penguins in what was their second meeting of the season. A win in the first game in Pittsburgh certainly felt good, but this was a Penguins team that has 7 wins in their last 10 games and has just now started to push for the top of the Conference standings. It was a different game entirely.
1) The Leafs are 15-10-1 and this was a collaborative effort from Michael Stephens and Mislav Jantoljak.
2) 1st minute, Malkin wins a faceoff against Bozak, Neal gets the puck to the point, it trickles back to him and the winger rips one past Reimer for a quick Penguin lead. Bozie had a word with the referee after that. Memories of Montreal? Ah well…
3) Leafs were on their heels early in this game as the Pens were creating a lot of chances and putting pressure in the offensive zone. Penguin forecheck was creating turnovers in the neutral zone and the duo of Crosby, Malkin was hitting the blueline with speed, creating havoc. However, the PP makes the most of a high-stick on Komarov, JvR with a good screen and tip in front makes it a tie hockey game.
Later on, a bouncing puck from Letang created problems for Reimer who couldn’t handle it properly. It falls back to Letang who hits the post but the puck finds Sid who puts it in. Soon after, after another rebound in front, Beau Bennett scores to make it 3-1 Pens. Wide open space in the slot is never a good thing. End of the first saw shots on goal stand at 13-5 in favor of the Pens.
4) With around 7 mins left in the 2nd Fraser scored to make it 4-2. Yes, on his own goaltender. It was another gritty, forechecky, dirty, hardworking Penguin goal. On the very next shift Clarke MacArthur scored to cut the deficit to one which provided a straw heading into the 3rd. Why only a straw? Because Pittsburgh pretty much dominated the play after that goal as well.
5) In case you didn’t know, Sidney Crosby is good at hockey. Healy and co. took every opportunity possible to let you know. It’s hard matching up with the Penguins and if you can’t can’t move the puck past the neutral zone, you can expect their forecheck to completely overrun any given team in their defensive zone. Less offensive zone time is also a byproduct of turning the puck over in the neutral zone (duh).
6) Though much less lauded that Sid the Kid, James Reimer had never lost to the Penguins in regulation – going 3 – 0 – 1 with a 2.20 goals against average in 4 games – prior to get shelled for 4 goals through 40 minutes tonight. While he’s been doughty in three wins since coming back from his knee injury, tonight he looked unsettled and anxious. He did seem to improve in the later stages of the game, stopping a point blank shot from Evgeni Malkin 5 minutes into the third period to keep the score 4 – 3. And he made an absolutely sensational reaction save to stop a streaking Crosby with a mere 30 seconds left in overtime. He stopped 37 of the 41 shots he faced through regulation and OT, though he continues to struggle in the shootout, allowing goals on both Pittsburgh shots.
7) The power play sure showed up in a big way tonight, with a resurgent Phil Kessel (7 points in his last 4 games) dishing to goal scorers James van Riemsdyk and Cody Franson. While much lamented for its inefficiency at the top of the season, the Leafs power play has been competent enough to be in the top half of the league (with 17.0% success rate, good for 14th in the league prior to tonight).
The PK came into the game as the league’s 10th-best, with Jay McClement et. al. successfully killing 83.5% of penalties this season. They were good again tonight, especially early in the first, when Mike Kostka flipped the puck over the boards to put the Leafs on a 5-on-3 for 39 seconds. They did again tonight what’s made them successful all season: when pressured, the PKers’ first reaction is always to get the puck down the ice. They went a stellar 4/4 tonight. It would have been a shame to see a good night of special teams go to waste, but they certainly helped the Leafs to the loser point.
8) After hanging tough through forty minutes, I had hoped to see the Leafs respond in a fashion similar to their game against New Jersey earlier in the week. Unfortunately, the Penguins defence successfully flooded the neutral zone for most of the night. It served to stymie and slow up any attack from the Leafs. From there, the Penguins pushed forward, eventually hemming the Leafs deep into their own zone, forcing turnovers on deep forecheck.
9) With a spectacular effort, Brandon Sutter saved an empty net goal as the Leafs started pressing in the 3rd period, on an obviously frustrated Phil Kessel. It seemed to serve as a turning point, and the Leafs began to push back against the Pens. James van Riemsdyk demolished Malkin against the boards (he left the ice pained, skated a shift, and went to the dressing room in OT). Cody Franson launched Crosby into the boards. And then the Leafs got the red-hot Kessel on the ice against the Pens fourth line. Kessel potted the rebound of a Mark Fraser shot for his third point of the night and tying goal. It led to a flurry for a re-energized Leafs club that seemed to dominate the Penguins for the remaining four minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime.
10) The Leafs were unlucky early, but found a way to creep back into the game. Eventually, it came down to a shootout, where the Pens swept the Leafs out with Neal and Crosby wiring shots past Reimer, and Fleury stopping Bozak and Kadri.
Mislav and I discussed at the start of the second how big this game would be if the Buds could find a way to bleed even one point after being dominated through 20 minutes. This game and the Bruins game, while both losses, showed a compete-level from the Leafs not witnessed earlier in the season. The game was an ugly start with an exhilarating finish, with a bonus point well earned. The Leafs will be back in action on Tuesday, when they head to Winnipeg to take on the Jets, and the Buds hold advantage with a 1 – 0 series lead.
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