PITTSBURGH – Speed.
In a wonderfully detailed monologue this winter, Mike Sullivan labelled it “the ultimate competitive advantage” in a sport that is getting younger and faster by the shift.
Speed, Sullivan explained, takes many forms. There’s foot speed — players who can chase opponents down. There’s team speed — the ability to alter the point of attack through rapid puck movement and cooperative play. There’s mind speed — your recognition of openings with and without the puck. How quickly can you stuff them or zip through them?
“Windows of opportunity open and close quickly out there,” Sullivan said. “When you look at the core players we have, we’ve got players that want to play fast. Number 1, they can skate. But it’s more than just that. They see the ice well. They process the game quickly. They can execute quickly. All those things make a team able to play a fast game.”
In outrunning and outgunning the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 in Saturday’s track meet, Pittsburgh played better and faster than an opponent that increasingly resembles a younger version of itself.
Generational talent and defensively responsible game-breaker at 1C. Weapons on all three top lines that can punish the opposition. Scary power play. Frightening transition game. Decent but relatively thin defence core that must pull by committee. Stellar starting goalie that makes jaw-dropping saves nightly.
“Toronto’s got a young team, they can skate, they have good team speed, they move the puck well, and they’re one of the teams that’s trying to play a similar style that we’ve been playing,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan holds the whistle that summons his Pittsburgh Penguins into go mode. He says he’s been preaching the powers of speed since he was hired for this gig.
Under his watch, Sidney Crosby & Co. discovered a new gear halfway through 2015-16 and sped all the way to the finish. They kept that momentum burning through to the spring of 2017, hoisting consecutive Stanley Cups and quenching their thirst with champagne.
And although the champs looked weary through the first two months of their three-peat bid, they’ve once again floored the gas pedal.
Funny, then, with speed so integral to both clubs’ identity, that they wanted to pump the brakes on this one.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t get lured into a track race,” Sullivan said Saturday morning.
“We don’t want to get into too much of a track meet,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri echoed down the hall.
Best intentions and all that. Cheetahs gotta run.
It was blink-and-you-miss-it hockey of fine calibre, orchestrated by the two hottest teams in the game.
Heading into their lively Saturday-night show, the Penguins and Leafs together had just two regulation losses in their past 20 games combined. Pittsburgh was looking for its 11th straight home victory, and Toronto was averaging 5.2 goals a night over its five-game winning streak.
Mere seconds after a sprawled-out Matt Murray robbed Zach Hyman on the doorstep with a desperate glove, Carl Hagelin one-touched a Bryan Rust feed past Frederik Andersen, converting on a 3-on-2 rush and giving Pittsburgh an early lead.
Connor Brown solved Murray short side thanks to a smart behind-the-net setup from James van Riemsdyk and snapped a 12-game goal drought. Tyler Bozak followed by whacking in a juicy rebound coughed up from a Travis Dermott point shot.
Evgeni Malkin evened the score at two after gloving an ill-advised high clear from Jake Gardiner up the middle of the defensive zone. Malkin’s strike, which came off a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing sequence, marked his 900th career point.
“I felt good physically, but I wasn’t really handling the puck well tonight,” Gardiner said. “I’m not sure what that was about.”
A three-point night for Malkin gives him 69 on the year, vaulting the Russian over Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau to seize second in the Art Ross race.
“A lot of speed,” Gardiner said of the Malkin line, which bowled over Nazem Kadri’s shutdown unit. “It seems like they’re doing a tornado in the zone, kinda going everywhere. You can never really predict it. Guys with that much skill, it’s tough to defend.”
Crosby had an apparent goal wiped because he kicked the puck in, and Auston Matthews sent two near-identical backhand dekes high and wide. In a turn of nostalgic symmetry, ex-roommates Phil Kessel and Bozak traded Grade-A chances on A-grade goaltenders on the same shift.
Yes, it was the kind of night you’d want the popcorn delivered straight to your lap, lest you get up and miss a kick save or an odd-man rush.
“No question we generated a lot. But three or four of our best chances, I don’t think we ever got a shot on net,” Mike Babcock said. “There’s was lots of speed out there. If you’re a fan, you had to be entertained. It was racing around.”
Zach Aston-Reese — the most recent rookie Pittsburgh has plucked off a Google search and plunked on Crosby’s wing — restored the home side’s lead in Period 2 when he kicked a rebound to his backhand and flipped it over Andersen.
Patrick Marleau tied the game for a third time on another tic-tac-toe play, this one started by Matthews and Brown on a power play. Marleau’s 20th of the year gives the 38-year-old 15 20-goal campaigns in his Hall of Fame–worthy career, but he was hardly celebrating.
“It’s better when those goals come in wins,” Marleau said.
Zach Hyman’s speed produced a gasp-inducing moment in the third period, when Olli Maatta’s stick clipped his skate and Hyman’s head crashed into the end-boards as he outraced an icing. The top-line winger cleared concussion protocol and returned.
“I was going fast. High impact. I’m just happy to be OK,” Hyman said. “I don’t think he meant to hurt me. I think he’s trying to make a play.”
Maatta sifted a third-period point shot that weaselled its way through traffic to unknot the tie and deliver an 11th straight home victory for Pittsburgh.
“I got caught looking to the wrong side of the screen there and, obviously, would have had a better chance of stopping it if I was looking the other way,” Andersen said. “That’s a tough way to lose.”
The Leafs must catch a quick breath and sprint again Sunday night in Detroit. But the long-distance race to catch Pittsburgh’s pacesetting gallop goes on.
“They have the experience. They have the rings. They have the pedigree. We’re trying to become what they’ve been,” Babcock said.
“They don’t look like a team that wants to give it away anytime soon.”