With a wealth of skilled young forwards, a focus on speed and a smart, gritty coach, the Toronto Maple Leafs may be on the road to winning with a similar style that helped the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup.
Saturday at PPG Paints Arena, though, the champs showed the upstarts just how far they have to go. And they did it not just through speed and execution, but through persistence and hard work.
After the Maples Leafs opened the scoring just 1:22 into the contest, the Penguins got four unanswered goals for a 4-1 win. Pittsburgh’s scoring was bookended by stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but the two goals in between – from a couple of versatile, grinder types – told more of the story.
The go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal came from Chris Kunitz in the waning seconds of the second period. Shortly after being thwarted on a point-blank, one-on-one attempt against goalie Freddie Anderson, Kunitz found a loose puck in traffic around the net and swooped in to put it home.
“I think anytime you get a goal late in a period, there’s a chance for a large momentum swing there,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who first got the puck to the front of the net.
Kunitz’s goal did give the Penguins momentum as they poured on 20 shots in the third. A few of those belonged to Bryan Rust, who gave his club a 3-1 cushion at 6:58 into the frame. Rust got a shot through Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly in the slot, hitting Andersen square in the chest and bouncing out. But Rust kept working. He beat a falling Rielly to the rebound, skated to the far side and swept his stick around Andersen to put the puck in an open net.
“We were skating tonight,” Rust said. “We were moving the puck; we were getting shots to the net. We weren’t missing the net; that was big. If we’re getting those shots, we’re going to get those second and third opportunities.”
The Penguins got 49 shots to the net, a season high and the most in any regular-season game they’ve played under head coach Mike Sullivan. And many of those were generated from in tight, where Sullivan wants his players to go without fear.
“One of the areas we have to go to more often, more consistently, is the net front – get to the blue paint, make it hard on our opponents’ goaltenders, try to get in the sightlines and be in a position to battle for loose pucks,” Sullivan said. “I thought a couple of the goals tonight were examples of that. We’re in the battle areas where you have to pay a price, and we got rewarded for it.”
Kunitz led the Penguins with seven shots. That was perhaps less a byproduct of being on Evgeni Malkin’s wing than a demonstration of exactly why Sullivan has him there.
“Geno is a great playmaker and has the ability to get people the puck in good situations, but Kuni has to have the awareness to get to the right spots,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had Kuni with Geno a lot this year; we like the chemistry they have. We think he brings a different element to that line, kind of like what [Patric Hornqvist] brings to Sid’s line. They go to the net. They’re disruptive on the forecheck. They force loose pucks, and it allows those playmaking guys to have the puck more. They create space for them.
“We’re happy for Kuni; obviously he got rewarded. He does a lot of those thankless jobs out there that you can’t necessarily quantify.”
Rust’s biggest asset is speed, which took him a while to get back after missing much of training camp due to injury.
“He has to be in good shape so he can act on that,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s taken him a little time to get there; we like where he is right now. He’s playing a hungry game; he’s on the puck. His speed puts all kinds of pressure on our opponents, both with our forecheck but also with taking pucks wide, forcing them to have to defend him, and going to the net.
“We think the line combinations we had tonight give us that balance that makes our team more difficult to play against.”
The Penguins’ team speed, too, is a key reason they’re tough to play against. But it’s how they use it where up-and-coming teams like the Maple Leafs can take note.
“You want to play with pace, but you don’t want to be playing recklessly to play with pace,” Cole said. “I think we do a pretty good job of playing some good team defense and transitioning from that, and you see the creativity when some of our really skilled players get the puck.”
Sullivan went a step further, calling speed “the ultimate competitive advantage,” but with one caveat that spoke to the way the Penguins got their goals Saturday.
“I think there are all different forms of speed but, for me, speed is hard to play against,” the head coach said. “I think speed in the absence of courage, though, isn’t as effective. I give our players a lot of credit, because I think we have a great group. We go back to pucks. Our team takes hits to make plays.
“We don’t get deterred. And that’s something that I think is an important part of your identity.”