Game Preview: Seeking a rebound in Pittsburgh


All those cliches about needing to respond to an embarrassing loss with a big character effort will apply to tonight’s meeting against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Leafs have played well against the Penguins since the start of last season, going 2-1-1 while scoring 14 goals across the four outings.

The Leafs and Penguins play a similar game, and in the past that has suited the Leaf offense just fine. The Penguins will trade chances as a skilled team with speed, and the Leafs have found it less difficult to find space and generate speed through the neutral zone against Pittsburgh than teams that force them to earn their inches and win board battles.

Most recently, the Leafs got the better of the Penguins in late October with a 4-1 win. That was also coming off a lopsided loss to the Blue Jackets, although not as lopsided as Monday night’s debacle. Will history will repeat itself tonight with a good response from the Leafs?

Carlyle and the players credited a ratcheting up of their physical game as part of their success in the October 26 win. Dave Bolland was key to the victory with two goals and general awesomeness, helping keep Sidney Crosby off the scoresheet the first time in 10 meetings with the Blue and White, but as we well know the Leafs’ Swiss Army Knife is on the shelf for the foreseeable future.

Getting back on track offensively

Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk each have three points in 10 November games. As much talk as there is about this being a predictable regression for the Leafs as of late, this is an unusually slow period for the two dynamic offensive players and surely one that won’t last.

Kessel and JvR both have a good history of production against the Penguins. Kessel has 3 goals and 7 points in his last five meetings with the Penguins, while James van Riemsdyk has six points in four games against the Penguins since joining the Leafs.

For the Leafs in general, there may be some rush opportunities available to them tonight. If not, we should expect this team has taken Carlyle’s simplify mantra to heart. More fancy plays in dangerous areas of the ice and overpassing would be frustrating to see after Monday night.

Gardiner scratched: A case of conflicted identity?

All reports indicate Jake Gardiner is sitting to allow for Paul Ranger’s return to the fold.

Carlyle seems to have his defence compartmentalized in such a way where Mark Fraser is a necessity on the backend as his bruising, stay at home, net-protection presence. The issue for some is that Fraser just hasn’t been right since returning from injury. He’s looked slower and shaky on the puck.

Carlyle appears to have more patience for Fraser than he does Gardiner; he feels the team needs what he brings when he’s playing well, and that Fraser deserves the time to sort it out. No doubt, Fraser was a warrior for the Leafs last season.

Carlyle, meanwhile, saw Gardiner playing firewagon hockey, turning the puck over, getting caught up the ice and making erratic decision with the puck on Monday night and has decided that he needs to watch a game from the press box. Carlyle grows tired on Gardiner quick when he feels he’s lacking discipline in his decision making.

I don’t personally believe the Leafs are in a better position to win tonight having made this decision, but here we are. Gardiner was effective and playing big minutes for this team in the first quarter of the season, but Carlyle was quick to scratch him after a performance in which all Leaf D were torched and no Leaf player, to a man, played well.

It makes one wonder about the conflicted identity theme that has been getting some play in the media as of late. The defence with Rielly and Gardiner on it, with Fraser out and Ranger in (Ranger is pretty active on the pinch, even when he shouldn’t be), combined with the make up of this team’s forwards suggests the very essence of a run and gun team. The aforementioned combination seems to be the best assembly of skill the Leafs can ice on defence, but Carlyle’s vision has never been that of a run and gun outfit, even though the team has often played like one. Last season, the Leafs were a unique blend of a team that thrived off the rush while physically punishing the opposition.

It’s not altogether surprising that Carlyle likes to have a “Mark Fraser type” on his blueline, but Fraser hasn’t been doing his own job effectively. It doesn’t seem fair to Gardiner to pick him out of the pile of poor performances on Monday night.

Tonight’s Lineup

In any event, the pairings look like they’ll stack up as:

Phaneuf – Gunarsson
Rielly – Ranger
Fraser – Franson

Let’s hope the new pairings can sort it out quickly as the Crosby/Kunitz Malkin/Neal double-headed monster is as tough of a matchup as there is in the League.

Up front, Peter Holland will reenter the lineup with Joffrey Lupul on the shelf for at least two weeks. Preparing for the likes of Sid, Neal, Kunitz and Malkin, Carlyle’s approach is to insulate Holland with McClement and Kulemin on the third line, based on the practice units.

Jonathan Bernier will start for the Leafs in his first career start against the Penguins. Marc Andre Fleury goes for the Penguins.

Projected Lineup  
Left WingCenterRight Wing
Left DefenseRight Defense
Gardiner scratched
Starter: Bernier
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Alec Brownscombe is the founder and editor of, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He’s published five magazines on the team entitled “The Maple Leafs Annual” with distribution in Chapters and newsstands across the country. He also co-hosts “The Battle of the Atlantic,” a weekly show on TSN1200 that covers the Leafs and the NHL in-depth.

Alec is a graduate of Trent University and Algonquin College with his diploma in Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded Canada’s Best Hockey Blogger honours by Molson Canadian.

You can contact him at [email protected]