Maple Leafs (13-15-7) at Penguins (17-15-3)
SportsNet (7:00 pm)
After a terrible 6-3 loss last night the Leafs are back on the ice tonight as they visit the listless Pittsburgh Penguins at the CONSOL Energy Center.
In years past it wouldn’t be wrong to write the Leafs off against the usually highly potent offence of the Penguins along with a usually porous Leafs defence. That is yesteryear as the well documented Penguin struggles have led to a poor 3-6-1 record over the past ten games. Add that to the Leafs much improved puck possession and better defensive game over last year and this could could result in a solid Leaf win tonight.
The acquisition of Phil Kessel (from Toronto) has not born the fruit that Penguins management was hoping for. Only 11 goals in 35 games, Kessel is on pace for a 26 goal season and with Crosby or Malkin as a centering partner one would expect Kessel to be having a better year than what has been produced to date.
After what can only be described as the worst start of any season during his 10 year career (2011-2012 excluded), Crosby seems to be bouncing back having now collected 24 points on the season and 5 points over the past 4 games. Well off his better than a point per game pace. One glaring stat is Crosby’s plus/minus of -5. Good enough for 5th worst on the team. While known for his offensive talents there is only one time Crosby had a season of negative plus/minus and that was during his rookie campaign. Normally he is not a defensive liability. At 28 Crosby should be hitting his prime and be a threat every game. He has not been the game changer this season.
Also holding the Pittsburgh’s back is the injury to Marc Andre Fleury. Out since Dec 14th with a concussion coach Mike Sullivan indicated that he will not rush Fleury back to the lineup despite having practised on Dec 29th for the first time since the injury. Replacement Matt Murray has played well in his first 3 NHL games sporting a 1.68 GAA and this could become a stumbling block for the Leafs if Murray continues his blistering play to start his NHL career.
The ever dependable Evgeni Malkin is having another strong season with 30 points in 35 games. Only slightly off last years pace.
Last nights game against the Islanders was a total team loss for the Leafs. It would be easy to blame Bernier once again for the poor performance but the entire team played poorly. Bernier did let in 6 goals on 17 shots and seems to have cemented his place at the end of the bench to back up Reimer for the balance of the season. Reimer did replace Bernier in the third period last night and turned away all 6 shots he faced. This will be Reimers first full game between the pipes since returning from what was a groin injury. This will be a test of how well the injury has healed. Should he become reinjured expect the Leafs to recall Sparks to the big club to start games. Again . . . it appears Bernier has sealed his fate.
Also expect to see the Leafs play a much better possession game. Normally they look good in losing and are competing each night. Leaf players as individuals must realize what went wrong against NY and return to the team game that Babcock has instilled in the new Leaf brand of hockey. There is no reason not to see a bounce back game and even a win.
Pittsburgh has won the first 2 games this year and look to sweep the season series while a Leafs win would bring them to only 2 points back of the Penguins and also bunch up alot of teams competing for the final playoff spot in the east. That is how close the Eastern Conference is between 16th an 28th place. With less than half the season gone the Leafs are still in the hunt.
If for no other reason a Leafs win over the Penguins (Kessel) would be sweet joy.
Enjoy the game.
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – PA Parenteau
Michael Grabner – Nazem Kadri – Leo Komarov
Daniel Winnik – Peter Holland – Joffrey Lupul
Shawn Matthias – Byron Froese – Brad Boyes
Matt Hunwick – Morgan Rielly
Jake Gardiner – Dion Phaneuf
Roman Polak – Martin Marincin
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Conor Sheary
David Perron – Evgeni Malkin – Patric Hornqvist
Scott Wilson – Nick Bonino – Phil Kessel
Kevin Porter – Matt Cullen – Eric Fehr
Kris Letang – Olli Maatta
Ian Cole – Trevor Daley
Brian Dumoulin – Ben Lovejoy
BABCOCK LAST NIGHT–POST GAME
SOMETIMES YOU PLAY WELL AND LOSE