As the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to roll – they’ve now won 11 straight and, at 13-0-1, are unbeaten in their last 14 – every opponent is a potential giant slayer. Wednesday in Pittsburgh, the Toronto Maple Leafs set out to knock the Penguins off their streak by knocking them off their game, and it almost worked.
Sidney Crosby opened the scoring midway through the first period, extending his 17-game point streak with a tenacious goal scored on his second attempt off of a rebound, and the Penguins took a commanding, 4-0 lead in the second with a three-goal outburst in just over three minutes.
That would have put the game out of reach for most opponents, but the Leafs, who had battled back from a third-period, three-goal deficit two nights before to beat the Washington Capitals, didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, they threw their bodies, sticking with their game plan of getting in the Penguins’ faces, Crosby’s in particular.
“Some of our physical players got physical with him, which is the right thing to do,” said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson. “It is hockey, you are allowed to hit.”
Toronto’s Colby Armstrong, a former Penguin and a close friend of Crosby’s, came at him with an elbow in the first. Winger Jay Rosehill took some runs at Pittsburgh’s top line early in the third, goading Crosby into double-minor penalties that resulted in the Leafs’ first goal – “he retaliated, and we were able to claw our way back in,” said Wilson – and provoking a fight with Pittsburgh sheriff Eric Godard, who took instigator and misconduct penalties for seeking out Rosehill.
Indeed, four fights in the game – Toronto’s Colton Orr versus Pittsburgh’s Derek Engelland, Mike Komisarek versus Arron Asham, Komisarek versus Mike Rupp and Rosehill versus Godard – could have provided an emotional lift for the Leafs. And, with the possible exception of Godard’s scrap, whose job is to keep the opposition honest, the Penguins didn’t necessarily need to play into the Leafs’ physicality.
On the positive side, Pittsburgh set a tone of team toughness, said head coach Dan Bylsma. “It’s always an area of concern, and I think this year, even before [this] game where it looked like they were trying to target our skill guys and try to get them off their game, our team has been there for each other to say that that’s not going to happen,” he said.
“And it’s just not one guy; it’s right through our lineup. I think players should feel comfortable in any situation that, if it does get a little rough, we have enough guys to put the jerseys together and have backs together that it’s probably not even a good idea to try [those tactics] against our team.”
On the other hand, however, the Penguins’ frustration gave Toronto six opportunities on the power play, with one coming shortly after the Leafs had sliced the lead to 4-2. That tripping penalty to Matt Cooke, just 9:42 into the third, could’ve been particularly costly if the Leafs found a way to pull within one with half a period remaining.
“Even before the second goal came, the talk on the bench was that we had to be better than we were playing, and execute and manage the puck better than we had been,” Bylsma said. “We talked about killing that penalty and then getting back to playing the right way, which we had gotten away from a little bit.”
The Penguins have ascended to the top of the league standings – currently one point ahead of Philadelphia – by dictating the tone and playing their game. And, as they head to Buffalo and Philadelphia over the next few days to face more prospective giant slayers, they know that continually looking to improve gives them their best opportunity to keep things going.
“We’ve just got to stay focused,” Crosby said. “Our effort and the way we’re competing is there every night, but there’s always things we can work on. We’ve done a lot of good things, we know what it looks like, and it’s a matter of going out there and doing it.”
“We try to assess where we’re at as a team whether we win or lose – what are we doing well, what do we need to keep working on,” Bylsma said. “That mindset should be happening whether we’re winning or losing, and I think we have a lot of guys in our room that do that individually and do that for our team.
“Today’s about going back out there, working on our game and getting ready for the next one.”