After losing three of five to open the season, the Maple Leafs are looking to start their first U.S. road trip since March 2020 on the right foot against a heavily-shorthanded Pittsburgh Penguins team tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m., Sportsnet/CBC).
No one is getting fired over a loss tonight, but an under-performing Leafs team entering a Saturday night in Pittsburgh on the second half of a back-to-back early in the year, with key personnel missing from the Penguins lineup, does trigger memories of the night Mike Babcock’s tenure as a coach effectively ended in Toronto with a miserable 6-1 loss.
Add in the exasperated reaction online and the jersey toss during the loss to San Jose last night, while this isn’t a panic situation by any means yet, it’s clear the goodwill with the fan base is at its lowest point in the Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe era.
No goals and one assist in five games from Mitch Marner on the heels of last May’s playoff showing has him firmly in the fan base’s crosshairs while he continues to display defiance in the media when asked about where he wants to better his own game.
Keefe is lamenting the issues plaguing the power play as a continuation of last season, and repeatedly mentioning the team’s inability to take games over they should be taking over from the drop of the puck, without offering much in the way of clear remedies.
Just five games in, there are a few ingredients at play already for this season to snowball into a disaster scenario for the Leafs if they’re not careful, but the high-end talent on the team should really be able to step in and calm the waters before it approaches anywhere near a crisis point.
Tonight, there is no Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or Jeff Carter lining up across the faceoff dot (Crosby and Malkin are rehabbing from surgeries, Carter is in Covid protocol). The Penguins’ top two centers tonight: Evan Rodrigues and Teddy Blueger. Kris Letang also won’t feature on the blue line due to Covid protocol.
The Leafs‘ Jack Campbell was rested last night so he can start tonight. The Penguins are coming off of three days of rest and the Leafs played and traveled last night, but the same was true of the Sharks on Friday.
Led by Matthews, Tavares, and Marner, there is no excuse for the Leafs not to start on time and deliver on offense with a convincing win to kick off their road trip.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by a banged-up Pens team:
It is going to be a very similar type of game that we have played. They have a lot of speed, a lot of tenacity. They play a really structured game and a very quick game. They move the puck quickly out of their end and look to get on the attack. They are a team that is playing without some key people, but they have found success early in the season despite it. They have confidence in their ability to do that. It is another challenge for our group tonight.
It is a very good, healthy thing for our group to get back at it tonight. We have to find our way through these games, find ways to score, find ways to get leads, find ways to protect leads, and find ways to win the special teams battle. All of those kinds of things, we have had to work our way through. We have done it at times. I don’t think we have played poorly as a group, but we have another level to get to.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan on the message to his team with so many key players out of the lineup:
I think our players are very familiar with our style of play, with the details of how we are trying to play in each respective zone on both sides of the puck. Regardless of whether they play a more significant role in terms of minutes or things of that nature, I am not sure that changes those details.
Having said that, when we are missing some of the players who are out of our lineup, I don’t think we need to change how we play, but we need to simplify how we play. That is really the conversation we have had with our group: We are going to have to play a gritty game. We are going to have to have a collective effort. We’ve got to pay attention to detail. We’ve got to rely on our structure. We’ve got to trust that everybody is going to do their job out there.
As long as that happens, we can become a team that is hard to play against. We’ve got to manage the puck appropriately, and we’ve got to compete — most importantly, we have to compete. As long as that happens, we have good players in our lineup who can compete in this league, and we know that.
Sullivan on Kasperi Kapanen:
Kappy has had a great camp. He has worked extremely hard. he is in terrific shape. His speed is really evident. He hasn’t scored in the first few games here in the regular season, but it hasn’t been from a lack of scoring chances.
He has been a very good player for us. I really like his game. He has so much upside and room for growth with his game. There isn’t any aspect of the game that he can’t play. He is big and strong. He can play a grind game down low. He is capable of that. His speed off the rush is very threatening. He can really shoot the puck.
We’ve really liked what we have seen from Kappy at this point. As long as he stays with it, he is going to score goals for us. There is feedback that we have given him over the first week or so that we are hopeful will help him move forward just getting him into better spots to get some looks so that he can act on his talent. We are excited and encouraged about where his game can inevitably grow.
Kasperi Kapanen on receiving “tough love” from Mike Sullivan:
It is more of me trying to be the best player I possibly can day in and day out — not just on the ice but off the ice. I am in the best shape of my life right now. He and the strength guys have been on me this summer. I was here quite a bit for the summer trying to prepare for the season. I feel amazing. Sometimes, when I get sloppy or I am not at my best, he is going to let me know. That is the way a coach should be.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#20 Nick Ritchie – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#58 Michael Bunting – #91 John Tavares– #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter:#36 Jack Campbell
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Michael Amadio, Travis Dermott
Injured/Out: Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek
Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines
#59 Jake Guentzel – #9 Evan Rodrigues – #42 Kasperi Kapanen
#46 Zach Aston-Reese -#53 Teddy Blueger – #23 Brock McGinn
#16 Jason Zucker – #10 Drew O’Connor – #43 Danton Heinen
#49 Dominik Simon – #11 Brian Boyle – #18 Sam Lafferty
#8 Brian Dumoulin – #6 John Marino
#5 Michael Matheson – #2 Chad Ruhwedel
#28 Marcus Pettersson – #52 Mark Friedman
Starter: #35 Tristan Jarry
#1 Casey DeSmith
Injured/Out: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Jeff Carter, Kris Letang