Tonight will be an exciting Hockey Night in Canada, as former Maple Leaf star, Phil Kessel, will pay his first visit to Toronto and the ACC since being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins probably are looking at this game a little differently, as they will want to extend their winning streak to four games as they set off on a four-game Canadian road trip, their first stop the Leafs. Kessel was dealt to Pittsburgh on July 1 after playing in Toronto for eight seasons, So far, in this season he’s recorded six points including four goals, in his first 10 games with the Penguins.
Kessel has fit in nicely with the Pens, where he scored three goals in five games, that included a solid 6-1-0 run where they won a 2-1 home game against Toronto on Oct. 17th. When media asked him about that victory, he said, “It’s different, but it’s part of the game. You just get used to it.”
The fact that after a 0-3 start, Pittsburgh has been on the upswing, and that few have noticed that Kessel’s team has won their six of past seven games, climbing to within two points of first place in the Metropolitan Division. They have flew under-the-radar most likely because the Pens have not rested on their laurels after winning. Bouncing back from a bad start, they are slowly trying to get their game fully in sync, which it still hasn’t perfected.
“We’re not satisfied right now,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “I don’t think guys in the room feel like we’re invincible. Sometimes, when you get on a winning streak, you feel a little too good about yourself. I don’t think that’s the case right now.”
The Pens got those victories through hard work, mostly because of their superior goaltending. Thet could use more stingy team defense, but they are working on it. In the last stretch, they are only allowing an average of two goals per game, and last night were tied for fifth in the league. Today they are 12th and Toronto far behind at 28th.
“It starts with our goaltending,” Lovejoy said. “We have a lot of confidence in our goaltending. Our commitment to defense, in the defensive zone, with all six guys, has gotten better and better.”
Toronto on the other hand has just nine goals during its mini-skid and has the NHL’s second-worst power-play which is functioning at only 8.7 percent. They are 2 for 23. But the Pens special teams is not much better at 9.4 percent, or 3 for 32. They had their 0 for 11 stretch snapped by Malkin’s goal only on this past Thursday.
One good point that Toronto can take advantage of is that the Penguins still have had some major defensive lapses in their games. That happened against the Sabres after the Penguins took a 2-0 lead, and Buffalo ultimately forced goalie Jeff Zatkoff to make 50 saves. There was just too many shots and if Toronto can put the puck on the net often, they have a chance to redeem themselves at home and not let Kessel get a comeback victory.
“Six out of seven is great, but in a game where you give up 53 shots, it’s almost bittersweet,” winger Beau Bennett said. “You’re happy you won, but it’s not going to work in the long run.”
“It’s a grind every game,” winger Pascal Dupuis said. “If you look around the league everywhere else, it’s the same grind. You’re not going to win just on talent. You have to grind games, you have to win them the hard way. That’s what we’re learning to do early this year.”
When you look at them head to head, Evgeni Malkin has five goals and five assists when playing in five of Pittsburgh’s six consecutive wins over Toronto. Toronto has last defeated the Penguins 2 years ago, on Oct. 26, 2013 at the Air Canada Centre. Last month on Oct 17th, Malkin and defenseman Olli Maata scored only 39 seconds apart in the first period, spoiling an otherwise solid 31-save outing for Leaf goalie Jonathan Bernier.
Bernier fell to 0-4-2 in six career starts against the Penguins and is already 0-5-1 this season despite stopping 23 of 25 shots in Friday’s defeat against the New York Rangers.
“I thought we had some opportunities and thought Bernier had his best night of the year,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock told local media last night. “We did some good things, but we have to find a way to win games.”
Can Toronto win? With a lot of pride on the line, they should play Pittsburgh pretty hard, and so we’ll give the lowly Leafs the benefit of the doubt.
Our Prediction: Leafs over Pens, 4-3