PITTSBURGH – Sometimes we all need to get away to find ourselves, don’t we?
No player on either side can quite put his finger on it, but a full month into this NHL season, both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins have performed decisively and curiously better in enemy territory than they have on home ice, where the Eastern powers each hold losing records.
So perhaps we should’ve seen this coming.
The Maple Leafs shook off a pair of offensive duds in Toronto earlier this week — more than 122 minutes without an even-strength goal — to deliver their most complete 60-minute performance of the year, overwhelming Sidney Crosby & Co. Saturday to the tune of 5-0, coating another layer of wax on an already buffed road record: 6-0, their best in 77 years.
“This league has a funny way of humbling you,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, post-loss. “Right now, I think we’ve been humbled. We didn’t deserve to win tonight.”
After surrendering the first goal in an alarming 10 of their first 13 outings, the need for a smart, engaged start was a stress point in Toronto’s team meeting ahead of their only trip to PPG Paints Arena.
“We’ve got to find ways to score first more often. The stats in the league just show when you score first you’ve got a way better chance of winning,” coach Mike Babcock said. “That’s got to be a focus for us. Come out, start on time and get to their net.”
On a first-period, end-to-end rush led by Mitch Marner, the skittering waterbug cut to middle ice and snapped a shot niftily tipped by John Tavares in a crowded slot. Finally, a first-period lead.
Babcock reiterated that Marner’s best games are the ones where he’s a defensive menace, and he was everywhere on this night. Somehow, Marner saved enough energy to fire some chirps at Patrick Marleau from his post-game scrum and sprint in dress shoes to catch the team bus.
“He’s always been a fast guy, but his speed seems to be apparent this year,” Crosby said of Marner.
“He’s a pass-first kinda player, but he’s been taking it to the net and holding on to it too. I think that’s more of a confidence thing. The more you see what you’re capable of doing, the longer you hold the puck, the more confidence you build.”
Once securing that critical first goal, the visitors poured it on, slanting the ice towards Matt Murray’s crease.
In terms of possession, face-off battles and results, the Leafs’ dangerous Hyman-Tavares-Marner line so overwhelmed the Crosby trio that Penguins coach Mike Sullivan felt compelled to throw his lines into the blender mid-game, bumping Jake Guentzel off Crosby’s wing and bringing up Patric Hornqvist.
“I’ve been waiting 10 years for this,” Tavares told the Hockey Night in Canada crew as the iconic towel was draped over his shoulders for the post-game chat. “Just a great effort top to bottom, a textbook win on the road, and one we needed. Nice to get that feeling back in the room.”
After an atypical 20:26 workout, Tavares says typically he likes to treat every match-up with equal respect.
“But when you’re going against the best player of this generation and what he’s done over the course of his career, you gotta be at a high level,” Tavares qualified. “I’ve had a lot of battles with him over the years. It’s fun to play in. These are great games to be a part of.”
As Pittsburgh does at its best, Toronto irritated its opponents with relentless speed and diligent penalty killing, and patiently waited to pounce on the counter-attack.
The Leafs’ first three goals all arrived on even-strength rush chances fuelled by quick legs and pretty passes. The Leafs’ breakouts, a sore spot, haven’t looked crisper.
After taking some heat for his lack of production, Marleau now has goals in consecutive games. The veteran burst to the paint and finished off a Kasperi Kapanen drive with a sweet deke of Murray that saw him crash headfirst into the netting.
“That’s a big part of scoring is you’ve got to make it hard on the other team’s goalie,” Babcock said.
Tavares later set up a Morgan Rielly, who smartly jumped up in the play to fire a laser off the far bar. Gardiner and Rielly joining the rush is an important element of the Leafs’ assault.
“That’s a big part of our game,” Rielly said. “And if we’re not doing that, it’s certainly not a good sign.”
Rielly struck again on a third-period power play, giving the defenceman his second career two-goal night and his 18th point of the season. He now leads all blueliners in scoring and is just the second D-man (another Leaf, Tomas Kaberle) over the past decade to rack up 18 through 14 games.
“He’s always good offensively – but sometimes he’s not quite as good defensively. Today he was really good defensively and really committed,” Babcock said.
“There’s no one who likes being a Leaf more on our team than Morgan, and he provides leadership that way. He’s got unbelievable enthusiasm every day and a zest for life, and he shares that with the guys. You need energy people, and he’s one of those.”
Zach Hyman rifled in his first of the season off a favourable bounce off Hornqvist’s right skate with 19 seconds remaining, on the penalty kill no less, and Frederik Andersen secured his 10th shutout as a Leaf.
Call it a rout.
Call it a measure of revenge on the club that kick-started the Leafs’ own mini slump in late October.
Call it a humbling.
To Sullivan’s ire, the Penguins — flat and flummoxed — delivered minimal pushback in the third, went 0-for-5 with the man advantage, and Toronto flies home encouraged by another clean victory in their whites.
The Maple Leafs, now 9-5-0, look to carry some of these happy road vibes back to Toronto, where they’ll host the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday.
“Bring that same intensity we do on the road,” said Marner, a set of chunky Beats by Dre headphones draped around his neck much like Tavares’ HNIC towel.
“Be more relaxed at home. We come in sometimes a little too tense and put too much pressure on ourselves. We need to go out there and have fun.”