The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead in the third period Saturday, just as they had 24 hours earlier.
That’s where the similarities ended.
Friday night in Buffalo, they allowed a Sabres team that had been booed off the ice in the second intermission to score three times in the final 15 minutes of regulation to turn a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat.
Twenty-four hours later, they successfully defended a one-goal advantage in the final period to claim a 3-2 victory over Toronto at PPG Paints Arena.
“We weren’t afraid to go out there to play to win this game instead of being scared of losing it,” defenseman Erik Karlsson said. “It’s a step forward for us. Hopefully, it can build some confidence for us if we end up in the same situation again against a good team like Toronto.”
The Maple Leafs pushed hard for a tying goal, launching 15 shots at goalie Tristan Jarry during the third, but the Penguins managed the lead well, making smart decisions and executing efficiently.
“It was the polar opposite from what happened (Friday), which is everything you can ask for in the situation we were in today,” Karlsson said. “It worked out for us today. We can play third periods like this again and not come away with a win still when you play powerful teams like Toronto, but I think that if we play the way we did in the third with the lead today, we’re going to get more wins than not. … Hopefully, we’ll get some confidence from it if we end up in the same situation again, which I’m sure we will.”
Karlsson scored what proved to be the game-winning goal with 27.9 seconds remaining in the second period.
Jeff Carter won a faceoff in the right circle in the Maple Leafs’ zone, pulling the puck to Kris Letang along the right-wing boards. Letang slid a pass to Karlsson, who was at the right point and drove a shot through a screen set by Noel Acciari and past goalie Joseph Woll.
And yes, the play went exactly the way it had been drawn up.
“It’s been a set play in this league for as long as guys could shoot one-timers,” Karlsson said.
Coach Mike Sullivan offered a pretty straightforward assessment of Noel Acciari’s night.
Acciari, he said, “probably had his best game as a Pittsburgh Penguin so far.”
Acciari is the fourth-line center who doesn’t often figure prominently in the offense, but he scored the Penguins’ second goal and set the screen that made Karlsson’s goal possible.
His goal, which lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins into a 2-2 tie, came after Acciari intercepted a pass by Maple Leafs defenseman T.J. Brodie along the board behind the Toronto net, then took the puck out to the goal line before throwing a high shot past Woll on the short side.
“It was a fortunate turnover,” Acciari said. “I got my stick on it and was able to pull it out of the corner. (Matt Nieto) got a good moving screen for me and I was able to put it in.”
After going 0-for-3 on the power play against Toronto, the Pittsburgh Penguins have not scored a man-advantage goal in seven games, going 0-for-18 in that span.
There have been some personnel and positioning tweaks of late, and Mike Sullivan said there might be more adjustments and alterations on the way.
“We’ll see where it goes,” he said. “That’s still a work in progress. We know we’re capable of being better in that regard. We’re going to work with the players to try to find their very best game. We’re trying to bring some solutions to the table. We tweaked the personnel groups a little bit. We’ve moved people around, positionally.
“But we understand that’s an area where we have a real opportunity to grow and get better. I believe we have the talent, the players to get it done. and these guys are going to be difference-makers for us. We just have to stay with it.”
Sullivan suggested that his players seemed intent on rebounding from their meltdown in Buffalo — “The resilience and the resolve were there from the drop of the puck,” he said — and that it was evident in the way they protected the lead against Toronto.
“When our team’s at its best, we’re playing on our toes,” Sullivan said. “We’re playing on top of teams. In a lot of ways, our best defense is our puck-pursuit game up the ice. I don’t think our team is at its best when we’re retreated and we’re allowing teams to come at us. I thought that in the third period (Friday) night, we just played a little bit more of a cautious game. We had a lot of numbers back, but we didn’t dictate the terms the way I think our team is capable, so we spent more time in our end and they ended up scoring a couple of goals.”