The Toronto Maple Leafs have been no match for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. Yet the Penguins don’t want to hear that going into the second half of the teams’ home-and-home series Thursday at Scotiabank Center.
Mention that they are coming off a 5-2 win over the Maple Leafs at home Tuesday and the Penguins practically stick their fingers in their ears. Point out that the teams’ other meeting this season was a 6-1 thrashing of Toronto Nov. 16 at PPG Paints Arena, and the Penguins nearly start drowning it out with a la-la-la-la-la refrain.
“I just think every game is its own entity,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Wednesday after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “I don’t think there’s anything that you can read into or think there’s an inevitability just because you’ve won a game or two.
“Toronto’s a real good hockey team. They’ve got good players on their side. They’ve got a dynamic, explosive offense. They’ve got a real good power play. We would expect a big challenge going back to Toronto. We don’t read into it too much. We’re a forward-thinking group. We’re just trying to make sure we control what we can to put our best game on the ice.”
Good players as in Auston Matthews, who leads the NHL with 43 goals, including one Tuesday. And long-time league star John Tavares.
But Tuesday that Toronto power play was 0-4, including 1:19 of five-on-three time, while the Penguins’ power play was 3 for 3.
The Maple Leafs were extremely hard on themselves after that game, which followed Sunday’s 5-2 loss against Buffalo. Coach Sheldon Keefe talked about his club being “embarrassed” lately and blasted the special teams.
That could set Toronto up as a determined, angry opponent Thursday.
The Penguins, who moved into first place in the Metropolitan Division with Tuesday’s win and have shrugged off an incredible string of injuries and absences, don’t care all that much about running into a buzz saw.
It’s a matter of having a ton of confidence in themselves, and perhaps rightly so.
“It’s another challenge,” Penguins forward Jared McCann said. “We know they’re a really good team. They have a lot of high-end offensive skill. But we’ve got to make them play (defense). We’ve got to take it to them and make sure we have the puck.
“We have a plan, and we’re going to stick to it. That’s about as simple as it gets. That’s it. If it was different scenarios, we’d play the same way.”
As has been chronicled throughout the season, the Penguins have been forced to play a simplified, unified game, and they have come to embrace it.
“When we play the game right way – when we’re hard on pucks, when we forecheck and we play in their face – it doesn’t really matter what they do to us,” Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist said. “For sure, they’re going to have a better game, but at the same time if we do what we can out there, we’re still going to be successful and it’s going to be a good game.
“It’s always fun when the other team brings its best game. It’s going to be a hell of a matchup.”
The Penguins have had a couple interesting home-and-home sets recently.
They fell at Philadelphia 3-0 Jan. 21 in a game they were decidedly unhappy about, then had to wait 10 days because of the All-Star break and a bye week before responding with a 4-3 overtime win at home.
Prior to that, the Penguins soured on their 4-1 loss at Boston Jan. 16 before rebounding to beat the Bruins 4-3 at home three days later. While Boston had a clear slate between those games, the Penguins had a road game at Detroit between, a 2-1 win.
“Whenever it’s a home-and-home like this, it’s special because you can adjust things from the last game,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “I’m sure they’re going to adjust things. We’re ready for that. We know they’re going to come out hard in their building.”
While a good guess is that the Penguins will go with Matt Murray in goal as he and Tristan Jarry – who made 34 saves Tuesday – continue to split time, news out of Toronto is that Frederik Andersen will go again. He gave up five goals on 24 shots Tuesday.