TORONTO — Confidence was still running high moments after the Maple Leafs sealed an overtime victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"We played about as good as we could tonight," said defenceman Jake Gardiner, who scored the winner in Toronto’s 2-1 triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins. "But it also shows we can play with anybody."
The Leafs had dropped three straight — including the last two by shootout — entering the night and six of the previous seven games (1-3-3) despite outshooting and often outplaying the opposition. A 41-shot barrage against Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes ended in a 3-2 shootout defeat two days earlier.
A once fiery offence had cooled, Toronto scoring two or less in each of those six losses and while they managed only a pair on Marc-Andre Fleury, the Leafs outshot the Penguins 49-34 while finishing with a 58 per cent puck possession mark at even strength.
Things nearly went the wrong way for Toronto in the early going, Carl Hagelin held up on a break-away attempt in the opening minutes and awarded a penalty shot. He was denied by Frederik Andersen, who finished with 33 saves.
Fleury was forced to exit the game shortly thereafter following a dangerous play in front of the Pittsburgh net.
Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk was tussling with Penguins defenceman Steve Oleksy when van Riemsdyk lost his balance partially, his left skate rising up and catching Fleury on the neck. The 32-year-old Fleury received treatment on the ice from a team trainer for a cut on his neck, located around the Adam’s apple, that required five stitches.
"I got lucky you know. I was talking to the (doctors) and it was close to the jugular," said Fleury.
Matt Murray took over for just over nine minutes before Fleury returned to the crease.
Pittsburgh went up 1-0 shortly after on Evgeni Malkin’s 13th goal of the year and 54th point in 32 career games against Toronto.
The Leafs evened it up 14 seconds later on Nikita Zaitsev’s first in the NHL. The 25 year old, a free agent signing from Russia last summer, fired a shot from the right point that was batted by Oleksy in front before caroming off Fleury’s mask and into the goal.
Afterward a gushing Zaitsev said he felt like he was 17 again after finally scoring. He had family in town for the game, but they opted to watch from a bar as opposed to in person.
"It’s the joke of the day I think," Zaitsev said afterward.
A furiously-paced second period saw the two teams combine for 29 shots and 53 shot attempts, Pittsburgh and Toronto ranked 1-2 in the NHL in shots per game.
Somewhat unlucky of late, Toronto had numerous chances around the Penguins net in the frame but produced nothing tangible.
Nazem Kadri danced around Ian Cole, but was stopped by Fleury. A Zach Hyman attempt off the rush was flubbed and went wide. Opportunities on a pair of power plays also resulted in nothing, including a Tyler Bozak attempt around the net that the 30-year-old centre could not quite corral.
"Shot counts have been through the roof," Kadri said when asked about the Leafs inability to score in recent weeks. "Lots of opportunities. Sometimes you just run into some hot goaltenders and they’re hard to beat."
The Leafs got themselves in penalty trouble in the third when Matt Hunwick drew a double minor for high-sticking and Soshnikov was later whistled for delay of game. The team shut down the Penguins’ full two-minute five-on-three advantage with Zaitsev notably blocking a hard Sidney Crosby shot.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock credited the work of Zaitsev, Leo Komarov, Ben Smith and Roman Polak afterward. Polak actually played the full two minutes of the five-on-three advantage, totalling almost five minutes shorthanded for the night.
Crosby, notably, was held to one assist and only two shots in a quiet 20 minutes of play. Toronto’s matchup fivesome of Kadri, Komarov, Zaitsev, Morgan Rielly and Connor Brown containing the Penguins captain.
Marner, who finished with two assists, instigated the overtime winner by chasing Penguins defenceman Derrick Pouliot behind the goal. After freeing the puck loose, he took it straight to the net, Fleury diving to intercept his attempt. The puck squirted to Gardiner, his shot trickling past Pouliot and into the goal.
The Leafs entered the night with a 1-7 record when the game went to either overtime over a shootout.
Saturday’s win, opposite a team with the second-best record in the NHL, was indeed a jolt of confidence.
"We have belief in this room and in order to be a good team you’ve got to believe you’re a good team," Kadri said. "I think our confidence is growing. Even the games we do lose it seems like we should’ve won."