The Maple Leafs are seeking their sixth win in a row when they host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight on Hockey Night in Canada (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).
It’s amazing how much things can change inside 12 games in the National Hockey League. Since the Penguins blew out Toronto 7-1 in late October — leaving the Leafs at arguably their lowest ever point in terms of fan confidence in the Kyle Dubas era — these two clubs have traveled completely opposite trajectories.
The Leafs have put the early-season crisis fully behind them by rattling off a 10-2-0 run — including wins over a number of the league’s hottest teams as well as the back-to-back Cup champions — while the Penguins went 3-6-2, conceding 37 goals over a woeful stretch of results.
There is clear evidence the Penguins were outperforming those results in the underlying numbers, however. The Leafs lead the league in expected Goals For percentage since the last time the two teams met (56.6%), but Pittsburgh isn’t far behind at 54.03%. The two teams have controlled shot attempt share to an identical degree over that stretch — both are in the top 10 at 52.8%.
An abysmal power play — clicking at just 8.8% since Oct. 24 — as well as a dip in their 5v5 shooting and save percentages have left the Penguins on the wrong end of a lot of the results of late, but the return of Sidney Crosby, who returned from offseason wrist surgery on Oct. 30 only to come down with Covid, has provided a reason for optimism. Sid went pointless with three shots on goal and was a -4 in his first two games of 2021-22, but he’s now got points in two consecutive and appears to be working his way up to speed. Mike Sullivan has eased him back into the fold by carefully managing his ice time — he’s averaged just 17:08 since returning from Covid and his minutes were conserved (16:03) in the blowout win over Montreal on Thursday.
All of Crosby, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, and Jeff Carter have returned to the lineup since the two teams last met. With all four in the lineup for the last three games, they’ve gone 1-2, including conceding six goals to the Washington Capitals and a low-scoring loss in Buffalo, but they’re hoping a 6-0 win in Montreal, which included a desperately-needed power-play goal, is a page-turner for them and a springboard back to their expected form.
With the Leafs facing a back-to-back this weekend, Jack Campbell will start tonight with Joseph Woll to follow tomorrow against the Islanders. The approach to start Campbell in the first game led to a weekend sweep last week, albeit the Leafs and Woll didn’t earn many style points in the Buffalo game. The Islanders will also be on the second half of a b2b tomorrow night.
On the backend, Timothy Liljegren will return to the lineup and Travis Dermott will take a turn in the press box as the bottom-pairing competitive rotation continues for a fully-healthy Leafs defense group.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the lesson learned from the last time the Leafs played Pittsburgh (a 7-1 loss):
I would say the respect for Pittsburgh, how hard they play, how competitive they are, and how they played regardless of who was in or out of the lineup. They just play a very hard and fast game. If you don’t match that, they can make you look real bad.
We don’t want to live in the past in terms of our own team. We have come a long way since then. That was part of our journey to get here — that we had to go through something like that. We feel like we are in a better place here now.
Now, with a lot of their best people back in the lineup, it is an opportunity for us to show that.
Keefe on whether he is emphasizing defense more or if the team has just gotten better at its defensive habits since he first arrived:
It’s a bit of both… When I first got here, it was a team that was really struggling offensively in a big way. There were a lot of guys underachieving, but you know you have to have a foundation defensively to give yourself a chance.
From the day I was hired until now, we talk about how we want to play offensively with our skill, but it has to be on a foundation of competitiveness, structure, consistency, physicality. Those are the things I spoke about on day one, and they are still things I am talking about today and every day even when we are rolling here now.
Keefe on whether he is a better coach now than when he was hired two years ago today:
I don’t know for me. It is not for me to judge whether or not it is better. But experience serves well. Experience in the league is one thing, but there is also experience with the players on the team.
You have history here now with guys. You have built a foundation in your relationship with how you have coached them and the things you have discussed. You can add players to that or reinforce things that they know. You don’t have to spend as much time on it. You can just kind of bring it to top-of-mind.
Those are the kinds of things that have really helped me, but over time, our staff has evolved as well. We have made changes and additions there. I have been a part of that process, which I didn’t do mid-season when I was hired and things were going 100 miles an hour. Those are the kinds of experiences that have given me the greater depth to my position.
Mike Sullivan on his team’s search for consistency as key bodies return to the lineup:
Consistency, repetition in practice… On the power play, for example, we have had a lot of different people. There are a lot of moving parts. Now that Sid is back in the lineup, it gives us a whole different dimension there. Just to have the repetitions in practice and the touches gives them an opportunity to work through the challenges — and even the repetition in the games. It is going to make them better each and every night.
I think that is an important aspect of it: the consistency of the approach day in and day out. It helps us build chemistry. It helps the team come together both on the ice and in the locker room. The leadership that some of our players who are coming back — like Sid, for example — is hard to replace. We welcome their return and we are excited about the potential of this team going forward.
Sullivan on Crosby working his way back from offseason wrist surgery:
I have never been around an athlete more driven than Sid. That is my honest reflection. I have the privilege of watching him every day. When I coached against him all of those years, I always had an appreciation for how good of a player he is, but when you get to watch him every day and you see the sacrifices he makes and his commitment to being the best, it is impressive. It is inspiring.
For me, that is what allows him to sustain such a high level of play day in and day out. He is willing to put the work in. He loves the game. He loves to be around it. He is the first one on the ice. He is the last one off the ice a lot of times. He just controls everything within his power to set himself up for success — everything from the work he puts in on the weight room and on the ice, to his diet and how he fuels his body, to how he gets his proper rest. There isn’t an I that’s not dotted or a T that is not crossed.
I don’t think it is by accident that he has been the best player in the game for a decade-plus. He deserves so much credit for how committed he is to remaining at his very best.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#20 Nick Ritchie – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#58 Michael Bunting – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#8 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#60 Joseph Woll
Extras: Travis Dermott, Kirill Semyonov
Injured: Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek
Pittsburgh Penguins Projected Lines
#59 Jake Guentzel – #87 Sidney Crosby – #17 Bryan Rust
#16 Jason Zucker – #77 Jeff Carter – #42 Kasperi Kapanen
#46 Zach Aston-Reese – #53 Teddy Blueger – #23 Brock McGinn
#43 Danton Heinen – #9 Evan Rodrigues – #49 Dominik Simon
#8 Brian Dumoulin – #58 Kris Letang
#28 Marcus Pettersson – #6 John Marino
#5 Michael Matheson – #2 Chad Ruhwedel
Starter: #35 Tristan Jarry
#1 Casey DeSmith
Injured: Evgeni Malkin