PITTSBURGH – What a night to be a Toronto sports fan.
Minutes before puck drop, grown men and women bundled in Matthews and Marner and Clark sweaters huddled around standing-room-only in a hotel lobby bar a corner kick away from Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena.
Eyes glued to the televisions overhead, the visitors were delaying their sprint toward the NHL season’s first Auston Matthews–Sidney Crosby showcase until they witnessed Toronto FC’s MLS Cup streamers fly back home.
A voluminous roar rippled through the lobby and out into the cold when Victor Vazquez drilled the championship-starved city’s insurance goal in extra time. And just in time to carry that giddy winning feeling into an enemy hockey rink and watch the new hope hang on to knock off hockey’s reigning best team 4-3.
“It’s an exhilarating experience to be there. The fans are crazy and they love it,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock of BMO. “Thrilled for the city and Larry Tanenbaum.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly said the players were watching the FC game until it was time to strap on the foil. “When a team within your family wins, it’s always a great feeling,” Rielly said.
Eighty-three seconds is all the Maple Leafs required to pick up where their soccer brethren left off.
A rushing Rielly buttered a cross-ice pass to Connor Brown, who buried one high past Tristan Jarry from the slot.
Nineteen ticks later, Mitchell Marner served one on a platter for wingmate James van Riemsdyk with a nifty backhand touch, and three shifts into the game, the arena scoreboard mirrored the one frozen at BMO Field back home: 2-0 Toronto.
“That’s the start we’ve been talking about,” Marner said. “It’s important we kept that lead. Last year, who knows what would’ve happened? We gave up a lot of those leads.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan ripped his team’s lack of preparedness for puck drop, a disturbing trend in Pennsylvania, as the Pens have surrendered more first-period goals (34) than any other team.
Sullivan also praised the balanced production Toronto’s getting from its top nine.
Pittsburgh defenceman Matt Hunwick, facing his former team for the first time, agreed.
“Anytime you see a someone like William Nylander on the fourth line, you know they have some depth up front,” Hunwick said. “They’ve taken a leap from where we finished in the playoffs.”
The Penguins’ lack of depth beyond one of the scariest top sixes in hockey was exposed by a much-needed breakout by Toronto’s third line, centred by Tyler Bozak. Marner dangled inside the blue line on a nifty zone entry and set up his pivot in front to extend the Leafs’ lead to 3-0 by the first intermission. Jarry was chased and replaced by Casey DeSmith, he of 41:53 career NHL ice time.
Whereas Toronto is healthy-scratching capable players like Josh Leivo and Connor Carrick regularly and over-ripening talent in the AHL, Pittsburgh is staying in the hunt despite injuries to No. 1 goalie Matt Murray and top-four defenceman Justin Schultz.
It got worse. Patric Hornqvist took a deflected puck to the head Saturday and is being evaluated.
Remember, this is a club that lost meaningful chunks off its championship roster due to a crunching salary cap. Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, and Ron Hainsey — all gone.
Now logging heavy minutes for Toronto, Hainsey, who assisted on the opening goal, was given this tribute video for his 41-game Penguins career during a commercial break:
“You can’t really measure his impact because it goes beyond what you guys have seen,” Rielly said of his new partner.
After digging a hole, the Penguins stormed back with vengeance. First it was Riley Sheahan sniping off a two-on-one rush, then it was Evgeni Malkin wristing a puck off Rielly’s boot and past Frederik Andersen to bring the Pens within one.
“They have the experience, they have the rings, they have the pedigree,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “We’re trying to become what they’ve been. They don’t look like a team that wants to give it away anytime soon.”
But just as Pittsburgh rode top-nine depth to June glory, the Leafs leaned on their third line to carry the load Saturday. Bozak tipped home a Jake Gardiner point shot for his second of the contest, snapping his unlucky goal drought at 13 games.
“Things haven’t gone as well for him this year,” Babcock said. “Confidence is always hard. He’ll walk out of the rink feeling good about himself.”
Marner, who was dangling and dealing all night, notched three assists for a team-high 17 and could’ve had more.
The van Riemsdyk–Bozak–Marner line was dominant with 63 per cent possession at even strength. Fourth-liners Dominic Moore and Matt Martin were the only other Leafs forwards who tiled the ice toward the home zone.
The club so prone to giving up leads one winter ago has developed into a group that holds them tighter than loved ones.
With another strong performance by Andersen, an outshot Toronto staved off a Penguins press in the third period, plus a late Crosby strike, and improved to a perfect 11-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes.
“It’s important we kept that lead and didn’t give it up,” Marner said. “Last year, we were a little nervous with all the young guys we have on our team. Everyone’s more experienced now. We’re all hungry to win. That’s the difference.”
It should be noted that Matthews failed to register a shot on goal for just the second time in his career, and Nylander was only given one shift in that hold-the-fort, grind-your-teeth third period in which the Leafs were on their heels. He skated a season-low 8:39.
A boxing promoter might’ve billed Leafs-Pens as a young hotshot contender aiming to knock off a heavyweight king, but Hainsey, the only Leafs player to stand tall after the final bell rings, tried his best to temper the hype.
“It’s a long way to go,” Hainsey said. “It’s Dec. 9.”
That’ll do. Dec. 9, 2017: A fine day to be a Toronto sports fan.
A contingent of travelling supporters, dressed in blue and white, summarized the past six hours when they chanted loud from Pittsburgh’s upper bowl: “We! Don’t! Suck!”