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Pittsburgh Penguins centre Zach Aston-Reese celebrates with Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary after scoring his first NHL goal against the Ottawa Senators during the second period at PPG PAINTS Arena in Pittsburgh, on Feb 13, 2018.Don Wright

If anyone can jam a stick into the spokes of the wheels on the Toronto Maple Leafs express it is the Pittsburgh Penguins.

When the clock struck 12 on New Year's Eve, it was a wake-up call for the Penguins. They realized their mediocre play in the first three months of the NHL regular season was not aiming them at a third consecutive Stanley Cup win. They unleashed their potent offence and became one of the league's hottest teams with a record of 14-4-1 since Jan. 1, moving into second place in the Eastern Conference's Metropolitan Division.

"I think you could just see, after Christmas, our eyes [are] on the prize, and the prize at the moment is making it to the playoffs, and after that, we keep pushing," Penguins forward Carl Hagelin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think you can see guys are stepping up. It's more fun to play at this time of year. It means a lot more."

No one is stepping up more than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Crosby and Malkin are one-two in the NHL in points since Jan. 1 (31 and 30, respectively) with Kessel right behind them with 24.

When the Maple Leafs pay a call in Pittsburgh on Saturday night it will be a collision of two teams operating at full speed. The Penguins have won their past 10 home games while the Leafs, who have a five-game winning streak going with all the wins at home, have won nine of their past 10.

Make no mistake, the goal for the Penguins is nothing less than a third Stanley Cup in as many years. When he was asked if he had any hankering for the Art Ross Trophy that goes to the top points-getter in the NHL, Kessel made his feelings clear.

"I've got two Cups. It doesn't really matter," he said Friday.

Both the Leafs and the Penguins like to play with speed and play in the other team's end.

"It's just going to be who does a better job of getting out of their own end," Crosby said. "Both teams try to fore-check well and spend time in the offensive zone. For us, we're going to have to try to get out of our zone quick and play in their end. That will be a big challenge."

The Leafs' major concern going into the game is the Penguins' power play. With scoring threats such as Crosby, Malkin and Kessel, it is no surprise the unit is ranked first in the NHL with a success rate of 26.6 per cent, although in a recent rut with two goals in its past 15 opportunities.

According to Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey, who played for the Penguins last season, the free-form style of the Pittsburgh power play makes it difficult to handle.

"They kind of wing it over there," Hainsey said. "Some of their guys just go out there, feel it and make it happen and they've got the top power play in the league again. So, a big challenge obviously."

"The best-case scenario is you don't take any penalties. Not always 100-per-cent realistic but that will be the goal. Hopefully you only give them one or two cracks at you, so they don't get too set-up, too adjusted. They get three or four [power plays], the stats say they will score at least one. It's a big challenge."

Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner, who left Wednesday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets because of a muscle spasm in his leg, did not practise on Friday. But Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said he expects Gardiner to play in Pittsburgh as long as the medical staff clears him by game-time. The Leafs finish the short road trip in Detroit on Sunday against the Red Wings.

Babcock also said the only way to handle Crosby is for the player checking him to stay close and not allow him any room. "The biggest thing playing a good player is play him tighter, play him harder.... The tendency [in dealing] with those real good players is to back off and give them space. What do they want? They want space."

While Babcock enjoyed the wins that came in the Leafs' five-game homestand, he is not satisfied with their defensive play, as evidenced by the 57 shots the Blue Jackets were allowed in the 6-3 win by the Leafs. He said if the Leafs are to match the Penguins' speed it will only happen if they stick to the game plan and work together, because "trust equals speed."

"If everyone doesn't do their job we can't all be fast together," Babcock said. "To me, that's the biggest thing about team sports. Unless you're well-structured and accountable, then your skill can't come out because you get in each other's way.The idea of structure is to simply free up the players so they can let their skill come out. If you don't know what you're doing it's hard. To me, that's the accountability process. Unless we're all doing it right we have no success."

The Leafs modelled the all-white uniforms, substituting the practice sweaters for the game ones, they plan to wear at the outdoor game March 3 against the Washington Capitals at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The white-on-white look, which may be helpful camouflage should a rare blizzard strike Annapolis, was not a universal hit in the Leafs dressing room.

"It's a lot of white," Auston Matthews said. Then someone asked Babcock what he thought. "Yeah ... what else?," he said.

Babcock did offer a fond farewell to forward Nikita Soshnikov, 24, who was never able to win a regular spot on the Leafs roster. He was traded to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday for a fourth-round draft pick.

"He's a good penalty killer, plays with speed and plays with some nastiness," Babcock said. "We're happy that Sosh gets a new opportunity with a new organization."

Canadian Olympic athletes compete all over the world and adapt their routines accordingly, but when it comes to food, some just have to have their way.

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