All pressure on Maple Leafs’ stars to take advantage of depleted Penguins

Kyle Bukauskas and Luke Fox discuss the Penguins' depleted roster, which added another name to the COVID list, why the Maple Leafs' big guns need to get going and why the pressure is on Toronto.

PITTSBURGH – All the ingredients for the long-awaited Toronto Maple Leafs offensive explosion have been aligned neatly on the table.

They’re less than 24 hours removed from a lacklustre loss at home that ended with a fan-tossed sweater on the ice and a head coach who made darn sure that well-compensated superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner shared equal public blame, alongside new guy Nick Ritchie, for his top line’s absence of production.

And the Maple Leafs will be staring across the ice at a depleted Pittsburgh Penguins roster with no superstars around to shame.

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We’re only five games deep here, and the poor-luck Pens will dress a lineup that does not include — take a deep breath — Sidney Crosby (wrist), Evgeni Malkin (knee), Bryan Rust (lower body), Jeff Carter (COVID protocol) or Kris Letang (COVID protocol). Core players all.

Letang tested positive once, coach Mike Sullivan announced Saturday morning, and the No. 1 defenceman is unavailable while he awaits confirmatory tests. Carter is confirmed positive but asymptomatic thus far.

Down its top three centremen, Sullivan has promoted brief Leaf Evan Rodrigues to pivot Jake Guentzel and Kasperi Kapanen on his top unit.

Teddy Blueger (144 games of NHL experience), the undrafted Drew O’Connor (13 NHL games), and veteran Brian Boyle (another onetime Leaf who won this job via tryout) round out Pittsburgh’s centre ice.

“I don’t think we need to change how we play. I just think we need to simplify how we play — and that’s really the conversation we’ve had with our group,” said Sullivan, projecting confidence in the face of adversity.

“We’re gonna have to play a gritty game. We’re going to need a collective effort. We got to pay attention to detail. We got to rely on our structure. We got to trust that everybody’s going to do their job.

“Most importantly, we gotta compete.”

We can imagine Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe delivering a similar message to his star forwards, who were relegated to the perimeter in Friday’s 5-3 loss to San Jose.

Matthews, Marner and Ritchie are still searching for their first goal. Captain John Tavares has one. And Toronto’s vaunted offence has stumbled out of the gate, scoring an average of 2.2 goals per game (24th overall) compared to Pittsburgh’s four.

When Keefe was pressed about demoting Ritchie during Friday’s game, the coach ultimately ended with a sharp point toward the money-makers: “You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner today as you are Ritch.”

Rodrigues’s journey to this game is a wild one, when you consider he was traded to Toronto as part of the Kapanen trade in 2020. When the Leafs did not offer Rodrigues a qualifying offer, the Penguins signed him in free agency.

“E-Rod is a good player. He hasn’t come out of nowhere for us. We know his game very well; he’s been a good player for our team for a season plus,” Sullivan said. “He’s kind of like our Swiss Army knife.”

“E-Rod, when you when you watch his game, every game he makes a half a dozen plays that potentially could end up in the back of the net.”

Sullivan’s message to the 28-year-old Rodrigues ahead of Saturday’s tilt was simple: Don’t change your game. Take what’s given.

All the pressure will be on the visitors, after all.

In net, Toronto is dressing a sharp and rested Jack Campbell against Tristan Jarry, who is rebounding from a false positive test of his own.

By cap hit, the Maple Leafs’ top six will outweigh the Penguins’ top six $43.95 million to $16.88 million Saturday.

On this night, Toronto will be far and away the more talented group on paper.

For whatever that’s worth.

“Sometimes I think when we have a full complement of players, it’s easy to defer to the Crosbys and the Malkins to get it done. And maybe the silver lining in this is, everyone in our lineup tonight is going to make a positive impact on the game. That’s the mindset we have to have — because we don’t have the luxury of deferring to Malkin or Crosby,” said Sullivan, a rather believable motivator.

“So, it’s going to be a great opportunity for us — and we gotta get excited about it. We’ve got to go into the game tonight with a mindset that each individual is going to make an impact. We’re going to have a positive impact. And we gotta go over the boards with that thought in mind.”

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