This was the game the Pittsburgh Penguins coaches have wanted all season. The Penguins cycled hard down low, shot from everywhere and hounded the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Penguins pressure protected goaltender Matt Murray and their patchwork defense, too. Toronto torched their opponents for 33 goals in the first seven games this season. Center Auston Matthews had multiple points in each of his first seven games, too.
Not so Thursday.
The Penguins matched their new rivals and perhaps showed the Maple Leafs that the old men aren’t going quietly.
The first period was the Penguins best period of the season, by a country mile. They outshot Toronto 17-9, outhit Toronto 10-5, and Evgeni Malkin lit the lamp with a power-play goal. The Penguins played a full 200 feet with vigor and that put pressure on the average Toronto defenders. The second period was more even but the Penguins pressure did not relent. The Penguins did not change in the third period, either.
A full 60-minute effort. A full ice effort against a very good team. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan will sleep well tonight.
Penguins Report Card:
Matthews vs. Crosby: Crosby Wins
Matthews has been on a Mario Lemieux-level tear to start the season but Crosby held Matthews off the score sheet. However, Crosby was also absent from the bottom line. It’s the first time in Crosby’s career that he was held scoreless.
Crosby and his mates out-shot Matthews and company 10-4, and out-chanced Matthews 5-4.
Crosby is in an offensive funk. It’s the first time in his career he’s opened the first six games of the season without a goal. He really wasn’t close, Thursday night. Crosby is feeding Jake Guentzel but not getting enough love in return.
Matt Murray: A+
Damn. That was an impressive performance. Murray didn’t have to stand on his head; the Penguins stayed tight to the shooters, who didn’t have time to pick at Murray.
However, when Murray was called upon, he was perfect. No sloppy rebounds. Aggressive positioning. And he made a few glove saves, too. He was the big, steady Murray, not the tortured, scrambly version.
Penguins Defense: A+++
They may not play a better game, all season. Jack Johnson, whose game, and irrelevance of advanced stats when evaluating it, we detailed earlier Thursday was a monster. He dished four hard hits.
Kris Letang was beaten once by John Tavares, in the first period. Tavares is a pretty good player, too. But Letang was not beat again. Instead, it was he going around Maple Leafs. Two points (1g, 1a), six shots, three missed shots, and one hit.
Riikola made a few rookie mistakes, as would be expected against a top-shelf opponent, but was still good enough in the defensive zone to prevent a red light.
Daniel Sprong: C+
The Penguins shuffled lines in the first period. It seemed an upgrade for Sprong as he got bumped to the third line after a couple of competent shifts on the fourth line. However, as the game progressed, the Penguins shortened their bench. Sprong played nearly all of his eight minutes in the first 35 minutes. He played just 23 seconds in the third period.
The good–Sprong was backchecking hard. He also showed good hops on a couple of forechecks in the second period.
The bad–Sprong had only one shot on goal and went to the wrong spot on a first period forecheck which allowed Toronto a rush and scoring chance.
Call it a step forward, finally, for Sprong.
2nd Line, Hagelin-Malkin-Kessel: A+
Wednesday, Sullivan said the coaches wanted to give that line “structure.” 36 hours later, the line played a clean game and provided the Penguins only offense. Malkin was matched against Tavares, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman. Hyman had a few chances, and statistically, the Toronto trio won the battle, but the eye test told a different story. Except for a couple of Hyman chances, the Penguins kept that line to the outside and made them work.
“More structure”. Yep.
Matt Cullen, 4th line: A+
Cullen played over 15 minutes. Coaches put Cullen at center to start the game, with Riley Sheahan on the left. Later in the first period, Hornqvist was put on the right wing instead of Daniel Sprong.
The line was hard to play against. They controlled territory below the dots, all night. Cullen had five shots on goal. As a left wing, Sheahan was able to engage in things he does well–play in a simple offensive game, without being the director.
The Penguins shortened the bench in the third period and this line became the defacto third line and excelled.