Calm, collected Campbell keeps Penguins quiet as Maple Leafs run wild

Auston Matthews scored his 33rd goal of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1.

TORONTO -- Had you only caught Thursday night’s game with an ear pressed to the walls of Scotiabank Arena, you might’ve assumed the Toronto Maple Leafs were trudging through a forgettable affair, the 8,139 fans in attendance making their dissatisfaction known as boos rained down on the hometown club.

In fact, the chorus that rang out again and again from the Maple Leafs faithful Thursday was evidence of just the opposite, the torrential downpour of ‘Souuuup’ chants for Jack Campbell the result of his 45-save gem during Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

No observer would’ve counted the Penguins as the club with the upper hand in this one. Not after Auston Matthews kicked down the door with a statement breakaway goal 21 seconds in -- the first of a parade of breakaway and odd-man chances from the blue and white -- before the crowd saw a coast-to-coast Morgan Rielly power-play marker, a short-handed two-on-one thriller from Rielly and David Kampf, and a late exclamation point from Matthews and Michael Bunting that iced a brief glimmer of Penguins momentum.

But given this night saw the Maple Leafs facing not the offensively deficient expansion franchise they rolled over on Monday but rather the high-flying Penguins -- one of the league’s most prolific clubs, with a couple of history’s most prolific scorers -- Toronto’s impressive effort still came with a side of 46 shots directed at their own net.

You wouldn’t have known it without checking the numbers, though, as Campbell handled each with a nonchalance that only grew as the night wore on, leaving his Maple Leafs far from under pressure as the shot totals quietly climbed.

“I just thought today was maybe as calm and poised as he’s looked all season,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said of his netminder after the game. “I thought we defended pretty well but at times there was a lot of stuff happening in tight, and even the difficult saves I thought he made look easy tonight.

“He just looked calm, seemed like he was tracking things very well. Any time it seemed like there was a dangerous shot coming, by the time it hit him it just settled and it seemed like it was easy, the way he was seeing it.”

It was the type of night that shows the other side of life with an elite goaltender in your cage. While some games prove it a necessity, a stopgap that keeps your side afloat while the rest of the plan goes awry, in this one Campbell simply made Toronto’s win all the more emphatic. Each snag of the glove, each casual deflection to the corner, each puck absorbed without follow-up -- all punctuation on the highlight-reel efforts that ran down the length of the ice towards Tristan Jarry.

The importance of that poise lies in more than just underlining his own team’s scoreboard success, though. It also tamed any sparks that the Penguins’ high-powered offence began to show when the gears finally did get turning.

While Pittsburgh on the whole looked more disconnected and out of sorts than they have in a fair while, there were still moments when the team’s potent top line -- Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust -- seemed to find their game. There were still some patented one-timers from Evgeni Malkin, and five separate chances for the Penguins to send out their star-studded first power-play unit.

But again and again, Campbell ate pucks, quieted things down, brought the dial back to zero, and sapped up any brief energy gained -- an important performance in any circumstance, but a crucial one against a team with as much firepower as Pittsburgh, who’ve proven plenty a time how easily they can begin to pile up goals if they get rolling.

This time, Campbell didn’t let them.

“Without him in net there, who knows what that game goes to?” Mitch Marner said of his goaltender’s efforts Thursday.

A key part of that sterling penalty-kill performance alongside Campbell, Marner spoke glowingly of the entire group’s focus when it came to the Maple Leafs’ special-teams dominance against Pittsburgh (1-for-2 on the power play, 5-for-5 on the penalty kill, with a short-handed goal as gravy).

“I just didn’t think we backed down off of anything,” he said. “I think we were all engaged in puck battles. Special-teams-wise, everyone was dialled in, regardless of penalty kill or power play.”

For Campbell, watching that relentless effort from Marner and Co. in front of him -- at the other end of the rink and closer to home in his own zone -- simply spurred him on as he authored his own standout performance.

“When you see the big dogs doing everything they can on the defensive side — not just one night, but night in and night out -- I think it rubs off on everybody, including myself,” Campbell said post-game. “You just want to make the saves for them [when] you see that commitment from them.”

Night in and night out’s been a good measure of Campbell’s own success this season, too. The 30-year-old is in the midst of a career campaign in Toronto, sitting with a .924 save percentage and four shutouts through 35 games, along with 23 wins to his name.

His club’s seen the value of his ascent most notably in tilts like this one, when the barrage comes.

There were exactly zero occasions last season that saw Campbell face 40 or more shots in a Maple Leafs sweater. It’s happened five times already over the first half of this season, including Thursday. And aside from one wild 5-4 overtime mess against Colorado (which saw him give up five goals amid his 44 saves) here’s what Campbell’s managed in the rest of those voluminous efforts: 42 saves on 44 shots from Boston in early November, 39 saves on 40 shots from Anaheim later that month, 37 saves on 40 shots from Minnesota in December.

And Thursday’s performance: 45 saves on 46 shots from Crosby and Malkin’s squad.

“It’s unfortunate that we gave up the goal, because we didn’t do a good job on that -- it’s a tap-in at the post,” Keefe said of the one that did get by Campbell, a mammoth Malkin-Jeff Carter effort that required a silky move from the latter to elude one Leaf, a deceptive pass back to the former, and three attempts from the pair of them before No. 71 was able to finally jam the puck home.

“He deserved a shutout tonight. I thought he was excellent,” continued Keefe. “It’s hard to say, because he’s been so good, but behind the bench it felt as good as he’s looked all season.”

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