Many hockey fans guessed that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be at the top of the NHL standings this year, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a pleasant surprise in this shortened season. While not among the league’s best in terms of points, the Leafs have themselves solidly in playoff contention.
Both teams boast explosive offenses and disappointing goaltenders—this one has all the makings of a barn-burner. So, naturally, this is likely to end up a 2-1 game.
Let’s look at how it might go down.
All stats come from the official NHL stats center.
On March 9, Pittsburgh jumped out to an early 3-1 lead before the Leafs battled back to send the game to overtime.
James Neal and Sidney Crosby beat James Reimer in the shootout to give the Penguins the extra point. Marc-Andre Fleury notched the win for Pittsburgh.
The Penguins have scored 100 goals in 27 games. They’re the only team that has scored as many as 90 as of March 13. Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz are playing on another level, and Pascal Dupuis isn’t exactly having a bad season himself with 11 goals and 17 points. So it’s tough to really put any other team above them at this point.
Having said that, the Maple Leafs are one of the few teams with the firepower required to hang with the Pens’ top line. Tyler Bozak is the glue that keeps the line together, while Phil Kessel finding James van Riemsdyk for the score has become a common theme in Toronto.
Pittsburgh will have a decided advantage in primary scoring against every squad in the NHL until a team wrenches it away from them by force.
Pittsburgh’s second wave of offense hasn’t looked quite the same since losing Evgeni Malkin to an upper-body injury, but there has been a noticeable effort from players such as Beau Bennett and Brandon Sutter to carry the mail in the big Russian’s absence. James Neal has picked up where he left off last season in terms of scoring goals, and defenders Kris Letang and Paul Martin have put their fingerprints on the Penguins’ offensive efforts as well.
Pittsburgh has dangerous scorers throughout their lineup, especially when teams are forced to focus on stopping Sidney Crosby.
On Toronto’s side, secondary scoring has come from unexpected sources. Blueliners Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson are among the team’s top scorers, and Nazem Kadri has finally started to live up to his first-round billing. His 11 goals trail van Riemsdyk’s 14 goals, and no other Leafs have reached double digits.
Pittsburgh takes the category here as well. No offense meant to the Leafs, but it’s not a big surprise, either.
What you see is what you get with the Penguins checking line. You won’t see many spectacular goals or flashy saucer passes out of Craig Adams, Joe Vitale, and Tanner Glass. Pittsburgh’s fourth set of forwards takes pride in blocking shots, winning faceoffs, hitting, and neutralizing opposing scorers. These guys provide some toughness when the situation calls for it.
The story is much the same on Toronto’s side. Frazer McLaren, Jay McLement, and Colton Orr won’t be winning many scoring titles this season, but they have been solid defensively. Orr has filled his annual role as enforcer, and his 69 penalty minutes lead the team. The line as a whole has a minus-one rating, more than respectable for a fourth line.
Balance is the name of the game for Pittsburgh’s defensive group. For every Kris Letang and Paul Martin on the Penguins roster, there is a Deryk Engelland and a Brooks Orpik. And in the middle, there is a Matt Niskanen. Pittsburgh’s stable of defensemen boasts smooth-skating puck-movers, defensive stalwarts, and a two-way defenseman in Niskanen.
While Pittsburgh has surrendered more goals than head coach Dan Bylsma would like, it seems that Pittsburgh’s defenders themselves complement each other superbly. With such a huge emphasis on offense in Pittsburgh, the scheme might have more to do with defensive deficiencies than the players.
Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson are bright spots for a Maple Leafs core that has had a tough time this season. The Leafs, like the Penguins, have given up a ton of shots. Their strongest defensive pairing has been Franson and Mark Fraser, their third pairing. There have been whispers of overuse when it comes to Captain Phaneuf, who has started to look a bit worn down in a compressed season.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been a major disappointment this year, but there are signs that his game is beginning to stabilize. He thrills Pens fans with his ability to make the spectacular save, but many wish that routine ones would become a bit more routine.
James Reimer has started trending in the opposite direction. He had a strong start to the season, bur he has come back down to earth, surrendering four goals in four of his last five starts.
If goalie play on both sides is erratic, this game could see ten or more pucks find the twine
Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma has to be a bit concerned that his team did all of its scoring in just under seven minutes of the game. Still, the heart that the team showed is an encouraging sign, so whatever he said to them in the second and third intermissions must have been effective. If Bylsma can correct some issues that Pittsburgh has run into on the penalty kill, Pittsburgh will be in good shape.
Meanwhile, before a recent losing skid, Randy Carlyle had some serious buzz as a Jack Adams award candidate. With the Leafs fielding a youthful, inexperienced roster, Carlyle has steered the team towards playoff contention. The Leafs currently sit in sixth-place in the Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL in recent going, while the Leafs have been on the schneid. I think that Pittsburgh is the better team and shouldn’t have any issues taking this game down.
I’m wondering how much Pittsburgh has left after an emotional comeback win against the Bruins, though. This bout against Toronto could easily be a “letdown game” for the Penguins.
I think that Pittsburgh will come out sloppy and be punished for it on the road. I see it being a closely contested matchup, but my gut tells me that the Leafs find a way to eke out the win, snapping both Pittsburgh’s streak and their own.
Final Verdict: Toronto