Jake Guentzel was alone in front of the Toronto Maple Leafs net with Sidney Crosby on the other side but the puck rolled off Guentzel’s stick. It was that kind of night for the Penguins. The Maple Leafs scored two goals in the first two minutes of the game and controlled their own zone for a Saturday night 4-3 win at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins had enough bodies in the defensive zone but failed to cover the Maple Leafs early in the game. Nearly 90 seconds into the game Maple Leafs winger Connor Brown scored first.
Penguins winger Phil Kessel left Brown uncovered in the right wing circle and Jake Guentzel didn’t cut off Morgan Reilly’s cross-ice pass. 1-0.
19 seconds later, chaos continued in the Penguins zone. Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry scrambled to get in position, and the Penguins forwards, including Riley Sheahan, scrambled to cover Maple Leafs. After a couple close calls, James Van Riemsdyk snapped it into an empty net. 2-0.
Mitchell Marner and Penguins occasionally rumored trade target Tyler Bozak assisted.
Midway through the first period, Bozak embarrassed Sheahan later in the period. Bozak left Sheahan behind as Bozak crashed the Penguins net. Marner timed his wrist shot for Bozak’s arrival and Bozak made it 3-0.
It wouldn’t be the last time Bozak embarrassed Sheahan, who was benched most of the first period and most the first half of the second period following the third goal.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan replaced goalie Jarry with Casey DeSmith to start the second.
Sheahan did have a bright spot. Late in the second period, he finished a Dominik Simon pass on a two-on-one. Sheahan neatly picked the top shelf, far side. 3-1.
Simon was perhaps the best Penguins player on the ice, one day after being recalled from the WBS Penguins. I asked him if he was riding a wave of adrenaline.
“Unreal. Right from the beginning in warmup, and when you hear the anthem, it’s beautiful,” said Simon. “It’s the best feeling ever for a hockey player. To get in the show…and stay there. It’s beautiful,” he beamed.
Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal late in the second period, and the Penguins trailed by only one, 3-2.
However, 22 seconds later Marner stole the puck from Sheahan along the wall in the Penguins zone. A moment later, Bozak deflected a point shot past DeSmith. 4-2.
With under three minutes remaining in the game, Simon again created offense. He beat Auston Matthews to a loose puck along the wall in the Maple Leafs zone. Before Matthews could play it, Simon lifted his stick and quickly tapped it to Penguins defenseman Kris Letang who was crashing the offensive zone.
Matthews and Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Reilly collided, which allowed Letang and Sidney Crosby clear access to the net. Letang made a beautiful pass to Crosby who finished the chance. 4-3.
Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta hit the post with :30 remaining. The Maple Leafs won, 4-3.
Press Box Nachos Analysis
1) Mike Sullivan was not a happy guy following the game. During his press conference, his voice rose. He got louder. He gripped the sides of the podium like Melissa McCarthy going for a Sean Spicer ride.
He was intense. “Preparedness” was the theme. The Penguins lack preparedness and a mindset to compete, boomed Sullivan. “It’s a headscratcher for me,” he lamented.
The answers are somewhat simple, but I’ll save them for this week’s columns…hint hint hint…
2) My gosh can Auston Matthews shoot. I believe his wrister might be Kessel’s equal. It’s certainly louder off the glass.
3) Cling to the “it’s only one game in December” mantra if you like. Sure, Jarry was rough at the start.
But that wasn’t what happened, Saturday night. The Maple Leafs are a better team. Deeper. Maybe faster. Perhaps a deeper bench of talent. They took away the Penguins time and space until the Leafs relaxed.
Through most of two periods, the two teams were on different planets.
4) Simon was outstanding. He has an offensive flare. It will be interesting to see what happens when the adrenaline wears off. He has a good nose for the puck and the offensive game. He’s also small. He’s listed at 5′-10″, but I felt like I towered over him (I’m 5′-9″ to 6′-4″, depending on which convenience store I’m walking out of…)
5) Sullivan was clearly frustrated IN-GAME, too. His line juggling was near constant. Riley Sheahan, after he was beaten for two goals in the first period, barely saw the ice afterward. He scored a goal, but then allowed Marner to pick him clean, which led to the game-winning goal.
6) I’m not sure why the Penguins stubbornly clung to their controlled zone entries and hope to create off the rush. It wasn’t going to happen. The Maple Leafs were in their way, all night.
The shot chart looks like rainbow…most shots were outside the dots and or in the high slot. I used to cringe when assistant coach Rick Tocchet would speak of simplifying the game with some good old-fashioned dump-and-chase fun, but the Penguins could have used that to regain their footing, raise their compete level, and be able to turn their forecheck on the Leafs.
They never really got to do that.
6b) The late defenseman was open. The Maple Leafs decided to protect the low area and collapsed around the cage. Yet, the Penguins didn’t take advantage of this potential either.
If Justin Schultz creates that big of a hole in the lineup, the defense is worse off than I thought. Brian Dumoulin’s shot may or may not be able to break glass, but the Penguins wasted opportunities to get the puck on net BEFORE the Maple Leafs were positioned.
7) Column 1 this week will deal with Sheahan. Column #2 will deal the Penguins current situation… Take note, they began the night in the second Wild-Card spot by three points, but the New York Rangers had two games in hand.
Now, the Rangers are one back with two games in hand.
Take nothing for granted. Nothing.