TORONTO – Throwback Thursday ushered the type of big-boy, no-nonsense hockey game that the Toronto Maple Leafs — an exhilarating group built on lightning speed and dangles for days — will need to solve once they crash head-on into another contender for seven games straight.
The Pittsburgh Penguins kicked off their four-game, cross-Canada tour by dismantling hockey’s hottest offence, snuffing out a handful of streaks in the process.
In an airtight 3-0 affair that saw zero goals at even-strength (and two late into a desperate, empty home net), Toronto’s five-game run, Auston Matthews’ seven-game multi-point rip, and the Leafs’ power-play-scoring streak all got squashed by the winners of two of the past three Stanley Cups.
“It’s not often you see our team get no goals,” coach Mike Babcock said. “You know, when you’re a good team and you’re playing good teams, there’s no room. That’s just the reality: it gets to be that there’s no room. You have to find a way to play your game within the no room.”
Poised and punishing, the Penguins gave the Leafs their first glimpse of what they should expect come April.
No second-chance opportunities.
And no blowing leads.
This meat-and-potatoes order of hockey? Pittsburgh gobbled it up and asked for a handful of fries smashed on top.
The Penguins out-hit the Leafs 30-21, outshot them 39-38, and out-shot-blocked them 22-7. They were more disciplined and more structured.
“They were heavy,” fearless 209-pound checking winger Zach Hyman said, after the bleeding, literal and otherwise, had stopped.
“They were a lot heavier than us. They were stronger than us. They had the puck more than us. They were a better team than us.”
Somewhere, Lars Eller enjoyed the quiet smile of vindication.
That Hyman — one of few Leafs built for a grind-it-out affair where victory seems to ride on every puck battle and box-out in the slot — felt overwhelmed is telling. He committed a tripping penalty, he was dumped to the ice by Jack Johnson, he got stoned in the crease by shutout-pitching Matt Murray, and he had his inner right eye socket sliced by a Jake Guenztel high-stick that slipped under his visor and out of the officials’ view. (Of course, Hyman returned, missing just a single shift as team doctors applied eight stitches and the equipment staff a longer Darth Helmet-esque super-visor for protection.)
“Really scary. It’s right above my eye, so… lucky,” Hyman said of the nasty cut, which went unpenalized. “If they would’ve saw it, they would’ve called it. They apologized to me. It’s fine. It was away from where the puck was.”
The one Leafs streak that did continue is a dubious one.
Nazem Kadri, temporarily lost at C with the new one-two punch of Matthews and John Tavares, has now gone 12 consecutive games without scoring a goal, dating back to his 0-fer in April’s playoff series loss to Boston. (We’re not counting his fluke own-goal into the empty net.)
It’s not for lack of effort. Kadri fired a team-best five shots, was on the ice for a team-high 36 shot attempts for, and his possession numbers were fantastic (76.7 per cent at 5-on-5), but Murray was stellar after spending 12 days recovering from his third career concussion, and kicked a leg out to deny Kadri at the doorstep.
“You just try not to think about it too much,” Kadri said of his slump.
“I know it’s going to come sooner or later. My game is never going to change. I still have the ability to go out there and play-make and set my teammates up. In return, those pucks are going to come my way.”
In a game with little tolerance for mistakes, Toronto’s most costly one arrived with a first-period too-many-men penalty that allowed Evgeni Malkin to zip a bad-angle shot past Frederik Andersen just six seconds into the man-advantage.
That’s all the edge Mike Sullivan’s experts needed to squeeze the clamps. As the minutes ticked away, the contest resembled a child trying in vain to arm-wrestle his father.
“It seemed like they were just calm, cool and collected out there. They didn’t run around; they just played smart. Didn’t force anything. They just made plays, and it seemed like they had us running around quite a bit,” said Matthews, contained for the first time all season, thanks largely to a dominant Sidney Crosby line.
“We had a hard time getting on the inside.”
In wake of this style of loss, Babcock heaped praise on the better side, and you’d have to assume that even a coach so addicted to winning will take some pleasure in using Thursday’s defeat as a teaching moment.
“Especially on home ice, we want to take advantage of playing here and make it a tough place to play,” Tavares said.
“It leaves a sour taste in your mouth.”