The Pittsburgh Penguins will try to pick up where they left off before the All-Star break, as they shoot for an eighth straight victory tonight in the opener of a home-and-home series against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Penguins were the hottest team in the NHL heading into the All-Star break and posted a 3-2 shootout decision last Tuesday in St. Louis for their seventh straight victory. The hot streak is the longest for Pittsburgh since a 12-game winning streak last season and it comes on the heels of a six-game slide from Dec. 29-Jan. 11.
The last three victories in Pittsburgh’s winning streak have come after regulation and Chris Kunitz posted the game-winner in the shootout victory over the Blues.
Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin has been a big reason for Pittsburgh’s hot streak, but he had a six-game point streak snapped by the Blues. Malkin leads the NHL with 58 points and he had nine goals and four assists over six games before going without a point last Tuesday.
The Leafs step out of the All Star break and into an important back-to-back set against the Penguins starting tonight in Pittsburgh. With the Penguins five points ahead of the Leafs in the standings, the back to back set represents an eight point swing; if the Leafs somehow managed three or four points in this home and home, the Penguins are suddenly back within the fringe pack and within the Leafs’ reach. If the red hot Penguins keep rolling coming out of the All Star break, the Atlantic division leading Rangers could suddenly find themselves with another Pennsylvanian team breathing down their neck.
For the Leafs of course, they’re trying to get themselves on the right side of the playoff divider. They currently sit ninth but are tied with seventh-placed Florida and eight-placed New Jersey at 55 points. Sixth-placed Ottawa sits five points ahead of Toronto, but are well within reach as the Leafs have three games in hand.
Jonas Gustavsson will remain in the Leaf goal, and the result tonight will more than likely determine if Reimer gets his next shot in the second leg of the home and home tomorrow in Toronto. Wilson has shown time and again, on a team that hasn’t yet had a clear number one emerge for a sustained period of time (Gus is getting close), he’ll ride the hot hand even through a back to back situation.
The Leafs will not get John Michael Liles or Colby Armstrong back just yet, but the pair are nearing a return. So too is Darryl Boyce, though it remains to be seen if there will be a spot for him when he comes back.
The last time these two teams met was one of my favourite Leaf wins of the season, a hard fought 4-3 win in late October in which the Leafs outplayed the Pens in all phases. It was probably the Leafs’ most complete game against a good team this season.
Will February and March be Leaf friendly again this season? We’ll begin to find out tonight. Realistically a split against the piping hot Penguins is a good result from the Blue and White perspective. The Penguins certainly look like they’re a top five team in the Conference more than a 6-9 team. With their recent form, as well as their proven ability to be a contender with or without Crosby (having a second superstar centerman definitely helps), my guess is they’ll gain further separation from the fringe group down the stretch. This is a big test.