After losing to these same Penguins just a few days ago, the Maple Leafs took advantage of their chance at redemption in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.

Overall, this was a good road game for the Leafs. Other than a 10-minute or so stretch where the Penguins were seemingly able to create offense whenever they touched the puck, it felt like the Leafs were comfortably in control for most of the night. 

Your game in 10:

1.    The game started off slowly for both sides, with some zone time both ways but not too much happening offensively.  Calle Järnkrok lost a battle along the boards in the defensive zone and took a penalty, but the Leafs killed it off rather comfortably.

Järnkrok has quietly become a staple on the Leafs‘ second penalty-killing unit alongside Alex Kerfoot behind the first unit of David Kämpf and Mitch Marner. Zach Aston-Reese is usually the next man up, which was the case again tonight. Pierre Engvall also picks up a decent bit of penalty-killing time.

Another quiet development is the team preserving Morgan Rielly by limiting his minutes on the penalty kill. The Leafs used Justin Holl and Jordie Benn followed by Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren. As the Leafs defense has gotten healthy, they have been able to shift Rielly’s focus and gear it more toward the strengths of his game.

It’s a little thing but a big thing. Rielly is averaging 1:39 shorthanded per game but played just 45 seconds there tonight — and that was only because Giordano took a penalty. That’s the ideal spot for Rielly: the fifth option rather than a top-two unit mainstay.

2.   The Leafs opened the scoring in this one, and it was none other than John Tavares netting his 400th career goal. He’d only gone three games between goals, but it’s nice for him to get the milestone out of the way and keep his focus on the season at hand (not that I think it was getting to him yet).

Jordie Benn built off of his strong start by making a nice play where he faked the shot, froze the Penguins forward, and instead of dumping the puck or forcing it through, slid a nice pass to Tavares. He even took off to provide the give-and-go option. Benn is a defensive defenseman, but it’s nice to see him getting involved and pushing play when there is an opportunity.

There were two other notable contributions to the goal. If you watch the play from when the Leafs gained the zone initially and put the puck in deep, Alex Kerfoot had no business being the first one to the puck below the goal line. The puck was rimmed around by Pittsburgh, and Kerfoot won the race.

Mitch Marner also did well to screen the goalie and was dumped on his ass for his troubles. Everyone has to go to the greasy areas at times, and Marner showed a willingness there.

Tavares did what he does: finds openings and scores goals. He’s up to nine in 17 games.

3.   John Tavares and Mitch Marner weren’t done there. Three minutes later, they combined for another goal, this time with the Leafs’ other top-pairing defenseman (!) picking up the primary assist in Morgan Rielly.

Tavares gained the zone and Marner drove the middle of the ice, which opened up a far-side pass to Rielly, who joined the attack. When Rielly receives the puck with speed off the rush in the offensive zone, we know he’s going to make something happen. He did exactly that on this play by finding Marner, who made a smart play in front of the net by controlling the puck on his forehand, keeping it on his strong side, and sliding it home.

This goal is a good example of why I like Tavares – Marner together. I don’t think William Nylander would’ve read the play the same way off the rush there. He is more about attacking with speed, whereas Tavares slowed up and read the play; Marner didn’t try to give him an outlet, and instead opened up space by driving the middle.

Marner and Tavares are very in sync with how they play and read the game. Auston Matthews and Nylander are far more go-go-go off the rush. They are all great players; they just stylistically play in different ways.

4.    The Leafs went into the first intermission in good shape up two goals. Matt Murray wasn’t asked to do a ton in the first (the Penguins recorded seven shots on net). And then the Leafs were up three just 11 seconds into the second period.

There were two main pieces to the goal: William Nylander won a battle to chip the puck free and spring a 2v1, and Sidney Crosby absolutely slept off of the faceoff and lost his man (Auston Matthews – a pretty great player himself!) in the neutral zone.

That 2v1 was easy for Matthews. Honestly, the second he picked up the puck and Letang inched over to take the shot away, you knew it was over. He simply chipped the puck over to Michael Bunting, who had a wide-open net to shoot into.

Bunting was on a 10-game goalless drought in which he tallied just one assist. He was fired up to score a goal, and it went right to his legs.

5.    The game felt well in hand for the Leafs now. It was 3-0, and the Penguins didn’t have much going on in their game. Almost 10 seconds later, Auston Matthews broke in and for a second it looked like the game might turn silly. He didn’t convert before the Penguins promptly went down the ice and made it 3-1.

Pittsburgh got the Leafs in a cycle, and Jason Zucker pulled high in the neutral zone with Jordie Benn on him. It is sort of no man’s land for a defenseman when the forward is above the top of the circle. Defensemen are used to playing close to the net and protecting the house, so when a forward pulls up high, they can find some space to get open. Benn should have stayed on him or properly handed him off to a forward to cover. He didn’t, and Zucker wound up and ripped a bomb passed Matt Murray, who was screened and had little chance.

6.    Still, the game felt reasonably in hand, and the Leafs didn’t exactly panic after conceding. They still held a two-goal lead — until a few minutes later when Rasmus Sandin, with time and space, simply fanned on the puck.

It was a giveaway to Sidney Crosby, who at that point was minus-three in the game but found a little redemption by picking the puck up in stride and scoring on one of his patented backhanders.

Fans always like the idea of pairing up young defensemen — it’s like shiny new toy syndrome — but defense is a really hard position. The general rule of thumb about defensemen hitting 300+ games before they’re truly acclimated exists for a reason. It takes a lot of time for them to learn the league and develop some savvy on how to defend against NHL-quality forwards.

Now, this was a simple mistake by Sandin, but his pairing with Timothy Liljegren in general wasn’t good. The shot attempts were 11-9 in the Penguins’ favour and scoring chances were 7-3 when the pairing was on the ice.

Later in the second period, both were caught on one side of the rink as Kris Letang walked in for an in-zone breakaway. Sandin was at the hashmark by the boards, and Liljegren was at the blue line along the wall.

Sandin played just 14:24, the lowest TOI among all Leafs defensemen. Liljegren was the next lowest at 17:07. Every other defenseman played over 21 minutes.

7.    At 3-2, the game suddenly turned really sloppy. The Leafs opened the door for the Penguins to attack and started trading scoring chances with them. To be fair, the Leafs did create a few themselves — in particular, a John Tavares chance in front after he knocked a puck down.

Matt Murray made some good saves at this time to keep the Leafs in front. He made one on Crosby in the slot and one on Letang on the aforementioned mini-breakaway. Jan Ruuta had all day to step into a slapshot that Murray stopped followed by a save on the rebound opportunity for Brock McGinn. Murray also made a nice stop on a Jake Guentzel one-timer.

That said, it would be a little misleading to say Murray saved everything cleanly. The puck was squeaking through him. Mitch Marner cleared one puck that was trickling through, and Jordie Benn cleaned up another. Benn also straight-up saved a goal on Crosby, who had an open net on a backdoor play.

35 saves on 37 shots in Murray’s return is promising. There were some good moments. He had no chance on the first goal, and the second was scored by one of the greatest players of all time. That said, we would be remiss if we didn’t note there were also a few saves where it looked really uncertain, so it wasn’t exactly a perfectly clean performance.

8.   After giving up a flurry of chances, the Leafs scored next. You could probably argue Pittsburgh deserved to tie it at one point, but they didn’t, and on a bit of a broken play, Auston Matthews tried to find Pontus Holmberg knifing through the slot. The puck bounced a little, and Holmberg swatted it toward the net (it looked like he knew Michael Bunting was there). It ended up being a great pass as Bunting simply needed to tap the puck in.

Those were two pretty easy goals for Bunting on the night, and Holmberg picked up his first career NHL point on the play. Holmberg ended up playing 10:09 in the game and was generally decent. He looks the part of an NHL center — he thinks the game well, is strong on the puck, and he’s responsible.

He’s also 23 and has four points in nine AHL games this season — not exactly the numbers of a player who can play 3C on a supposed Cup contender right now through the rest of the season and playoffs, but it’s worth giving him a look.

Holmberg played the least of any forward in this game. Alex Kerfoot led all Leafs forwards with 17:24, but he was only that busy because he plays on both special teams. Sheldon Keefe rolled four lines. It was nice to see.

9.   I was curious to see how the Leafs would defend the lead in the third, especially after the second period was really loose. They actually closed out the game quite well. It never really felt in question in the final frame.

I would rank the best scoring chances between either team as, 1) Zach Aston-Reese missing a wide-open net in the slot after a nice pass from Denis Malgin; 2) Jordie Benn‘s shorthanded breakaway/borderline 2-0 that he should have passed over to Alex Kerfoot; 3) David Kämpf skating right down the royal road and getting a good shot off on the rush.

There were a few chances on the power play for the Penguins, and one Rickard Rakell one-timer at 5v5. They didn’t really create much, though. The Leafs did well to create for themselves while not giving the Penguins much of anything.

10.   The Leafs then iced it with an empty-net goal. Michael Bunting tried to complete the hat trick from his own end, but he missed before William Nylander raced down the ice and put it home.

Bunting ended up with a nice three-point night. The John TavaresMitch Marner pairing is clicking right now, and the Auston Matthews – Nylander pairing looks good with Bunting.

There will be a lot of talk about this as the best look now and moving forward, but the truth is that this too will get stale at some point. It is par for the course. It only becomes a problem when the Leafs simply set it and forget it. They need to be able to shake up these two combinations at times when they run cold and require a breath of fresh air. Keefe might also want to go one way over another depending on the particular matchup.

Heat Map: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts