The numbers are incredible.
Nineteen goals. Twenty-one assists. And all that coming in just 25 career games against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not that Sidney Crosby is ever picky about who he scores on, but he’s had a particular fondness for the often goaltending-deprived Leafs, something that has continued this season with two goals and three assists in three games against Toronto.
“There are very few things that are unimpressive about him,” Leafs netminder Ben Scrivens acknowledged.
But, for one night anyway, they found a way to quiet the fury that is Crosby’s dominance of the scoresheet by limiting him almost all night.
The only problem?
The “almost” part.
The Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off a come-from-behind 3-1 victory over the Leafs on Thursday, rallying with two late goals by Pascal Dupuis after Toronto had held the highest scoring team in the league scoreless deep into the third period.
Crosby and Chris Kunitz assisted on both goals, too, part of continued impressive production for what just might be the best line in hockey right now.
It was a heartbreaking way to lose for a Toronto team that has now dropped four in a row, especially with the beleaguered defence pairing of rookie Korbinian Holzer and captain Dion Phaneuf victimized on both of Dupuis' tallies.
(Those breakdowns should only increase the cries for Jake Gardiner – one of the top rookies in the NHL last season – to be recalled from the minors.)
“They were definitely flaws of defensive zone coverage,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said.
“It’s even more disheartening when you lose because of errors late in the game,” said Scrivens, who realistically had little chance on either of Dupuis goals. “Hopefully we can learn from this one. We’ve got so many good things to take out of it.”
After a long scoreless stretch, Tyler Bozak opened the game’s scoring right around the midway point, capping off a pretty passing play between Phil Kessel and Cody Franson by roofing the puck at the side of the net.
It was only Bozak’s ninth even strength point on the year, and it came on a night where his line was charged with trying to shutdown Crosby’s throughout.
That unique assignment – Mikhail Grabovski usually gets the tough checking duties for Toronto – worked for long stretches, too, even during an uncharacteristically poor night for Bozak in the faceoff circle (32 per cent).
Bozak and Co. held Crosby to just one shot until deep into the third period, limiting the effectiveness and out-chancing his line for most of the first two periods.
The Crosby crackdown was evident every time he was on the ice, exemplified when beefy defenceman Mark Fraser delivered a body slam of sorts on the Pens captain during one second period penalty kill.
But with the Penguins trailing and time running out, Crosby finally made some magic happen. He spun away from two Toronto checkers near the faceoff dot and put a perfect backhand pass to a wide open Dupuis at the side of the net.
Five minutes later, with little time left in the game, Dupuis scored again with a rocket to the top corner – and that was enough.
“It’s a tough loss,” Bozak said. “You always want to hold down when you’re leading after two and we didn’t finish the job.”
“We had some breakdowns that cost us the hockey game,” Carlyle added. “I thought that for 53 minutes of the game, we did a lot of things really well and then made some mistakes at a critical point in the game.”
The win was the Penguins seventh in a row and moves them to 12-3-0 in the past month as they’ve stormed up the Eastern Conference standings.
Toronto, meanwhile, is sinking, falling to seventh in the East with the red-hot Winnipeg Jets arriving in town for Saturday’s game only one point back.
Part of the Leafs frustration with their latest loss is that it came despite Carlyle calling for some special attention on No. 87, who was an easier target with Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup with a shoulder injury.
“He’s a tremendous talent,” Carlyle said of focusing on Crosby. “How can you ignore it?”
“Very hard to play against this player,” Grabovski had mused before the game. “But when you play against these players, you learn about yourself.”
These Leafs – still one of the youngest teams in the league at an average age of 27.3 years – have a ways to go in that department and they learned a very tough lesson in Thursday’s loss.
But should they find a way to sneak into the postseason, it’s a distinct possibility they will wind up facing the Penguins in Round 1, who for whatever reason have been pretty average against Toronto the last few years.
Few would pick the Leafs in that matchup, but the fact it’s even being contemplated remains a positive for a franchise that needs to give its stars (and free agents) incentive to sign on to what they’re attempting to build for the long term.
Getting to that long-awaited playoff berth, however, will require shutting down the best player in the game – and his linemates – for a full 60 minutes from time to time.