The Toronto Maple Leafs won’t be catching any breaks when Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins come to call at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
Crosby, of course, is flying high along with Pittsburgh, as he led the NHL in points Friday with 17 in nine games before the 7-2 Penguins played the New York Islanders. The Penguins also got their best defenceman in the lineup for the first time this season when Kris Letang came back from an undisclosed injury to play against the Islanders.
In three games against the Leafs last season, Letang had three points. Crosby was the top Penguins producer against Toronto with five points, while his right winger Pascal Dupuis had four.
And goaltender Marc-André Fleury, who was in the nets for the Pens’ two wins and a loss against the Leafs last season, seems to have rediscovered his form after spiralling out of favour in 2012-13.
Like the Leafs, the Penguins have back-to-back, home-and-road games this weekend. Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma made a lot of noise earlier this week about it being a better idea to start Fleury in Friday’s game because the Islanders are a Metropolitan Division opponent, and save rookie backup Jeff Zatkoff for the Leafs.
However, Bylsma gave Zatkoff his second NHL start against the Islanders and will throw Fleury against the Leafs. In eight games this season, Fleury has a 7-1 win-loss record, 1.74 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.
“He’s been solid, been really good,” Crosby said Friday about Fleury. “He has probably stolen us at least a few of the games. When we had periods of time we didn’t play our best, he was there to close the door.”
The only thing leaning in the Leafs’ favour is the state of the Penguins’ second line. Centre Evgeni Malkin is off to a slow start with a mere nine points because of a changing cast of wingers thanks to injuries to James Neal, who has yet to play this season, and rookie Beau Bennett, who has missed five games. They both have the most common Penguins injury – undisclosed – and it isn’t known when they will play.
Malkin is now playing between Jussi Jokinen and Chuck Kobasew, neither of whom is usually found among the top six forwards of any NHL team. But this has yet to slow the Penguins down.
“I still think we’ve got to be a little more consistent in the way we manage the puck,” Crosby said. “Besides that, we’ve competed pretty hard. We’ve pretty much been in every game and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
After the Penguins were swept in the Eastern Conference final last spring by the Boston Bruins, Jacques Martin was hired as an assistant coach to work on their defensive game. Going into the Islanders game, the Penguins were sixth in the NHL in goals-against per game at 2.22, just ahead of the Leafs, who were at 2.40, although Crosby said Martin has not made any radical changes. The key to their defensive game, he said, is simply getting the puck out of their own end quickly.
“I think we’re playing pretty similar,” Crosby said. “We’re doing a good job getting out of there pretty quick. The best way to play defence is getting out of there, being disciplined with the puck and not letting teams get a chance to come back at us.”
The addition of Letang, a quick defenceman who handles the puck well, will make it even harder for the Leafs to establish their fore-checking game. He said the three days off the Penguins had before Friday’s game was useful in getting ready for his season debut. He stepped right back on the Penguins’ top pair Friday night, teaming with Rob Scuderi.
“I had a chance to practice, two full practices with my teammates, so I feel pretty good,” Letang said. “I’ve been pretty quick at getting the rhythm back.”
Like the Leafs and Morgan Rielly, the Penguins also have a 19-year-old defenceman who was told this week he is staying in the NHL. Olli Maatta – who was taken 22nd overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, 17 spots behind Rielly – had three points in nine games by Friday. Also like Rielly, it is still not guaranteed Maatta will stay for the entire season.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Physically he seems ready for the challenge. It’s a step in his career that I think he’s ready for, and we’ll continue to look at it as we go down the line.”
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