PITTSBURGH — There’s a lot these Toronto Maple Leafs would love to emulate about the Pittsburgh Penguins.
We’re talking about stuff that goes well beyond the championship banners hanging inside PPG Paints Arena or the gaudy list of individual awards and honours listed inside the Penguins dressing room.
But when the Leafs start to break down an opponent they’ll face twice this week — here on Tuesday and then back home on Thursday — they see a standard of consistent performance that they aspire to. Pittsburgh was blessed with two generational centres, sure, but in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the Penguins also found twin powerhouse engines.
“You know they’re going to bring it every night,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said Tuesday. “That’s why they’re two of the top players in the world and why they’ve had so much success the last 10, 11 years.
“They bring it every night, they compete hard.”
Matthews has taken noticeable steps in that regard this season. His shot has been a lethal weapon since he stepped into the league — and it currently has him tied with David Pastrnak for the NHL goal-scoring lead at 42 — but there was a learning curve when it came to defensive awareness and being able to dictate the terms against top opponents.
He’s been doing a lot of that now, too, although the challenge will be significant during 120 minutes of action against Crosby and/or Malkin.
This test arrives at an important time with the Leafs having crumbled during a 5-2 loss in Buffalo on Sunday night. That was a performance head coach Sheldon Keefe termed a “little bit of an embarrassment” and wondered if his team was even in the building.
“I think it was mostly just kind of probably a mindset, an attitude,” said Matthews. “I mean we can’t feel sorry for ourselves — we obviously weren’t ready to play. First 10 minutes I thought actually weren’t bad but then it just kind of went a bit sideways on us.
“We didn’t really compete, they were winning all the battles. It was just kind of the story for the rest of the game.”
It was a decidedly un-Penguins performance.
The Leafs are at a more nascent stage of their growth cycle and still trying to figure out what they are. Keefe is once again juggling his bottom-six forwards in search of something that works — they’ll go with Clifford-Spezza-Timashov, Engvall-Gauthier-Kapanen to start in Pittsburgh — and will bring veteran Martin Marincin in for rookie Timothy Liljegren on the blue line.
Pittsburgh is obviously most concerned with Toronto’s top players and Crosby mentioned there’s “a lot” to worry about when going head-to-head with the Zach Hyman-Matthews-Mitch Marner line.
“Between the speed and the shot and Marner’s playmaking ability,” said Crosby. “You know, Matthews doesn’t need much time and space to get that shot off, so they create a lot. You’ve got to be able to play in their end. If not, it’s going to be a long night.
“As soon as they possess the puck they’re going to be able to generate chances. I think, for us, our best way of defending is just holding onto the puck and trying to play in their end.”
The Leafs core is getting more established in its fourth season together, but that’s a pretty nice compliment from one of the NHL’s all-time greats. It was received that way, too.
“That’s really cool. It’s hard not to say that,” said Marner. “That’s a guy I grew up watching and wanting to be like. Stepping on the ice against him, it’s always a fun time, it’s always a challenge.”