The Toronto Maple Leafs are showing another step in their development as a playoff contender, salvaging something on those nights when some or all of them are not playing that well.
Their fans may not be quite ready to believe, but the Leafs drew an endorsement from the NHL's best player. "Yeah, I see them being a playoff team. They're playing well and getting wins for a reason," Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby said shortly after scoring in the shootout Saturday night to give his team a 5-4 win over the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs should have been buried by the Penguins by the time the game went the regulation 60 minutes. Their defensive game went in fits and starts and goaltender James Reimer did not have an outstanding evening, as he coughed up some fat rebounds and misplayed a puck or two.
But every time they made a mistake, the Leafs managed to come back and score to keep the game close, which wound up bringing them an important point with the shootout loss.
Crosby thinks the biggest difference in the Leafs from last season, when they famously "drove off a cliff" in the words of former general manager Brian Burke, is depth and experience. He also likes their speed and fore-checking.
"There are a lot of similarities up front," he said. "Their depth stands out a little more. All the way through [the forward lines], they can score. That's probably the experience some of their young guys are getting. They've got some new young guys on defence and those guys seem to be playing well."
While the Leafs' top line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk produced two of the Leafs' four goals, they did get two important ones from elsewhere. Defenceman Cody Franson scored on the power play to pull the Leafs within one goal after the Penguins took a 3-1 lead on two quick goals. It was Franson's 16th point in 22 games after being a spare part last season and at the start of this one. Then Clarke MacArthur responded after the Penguins went up by two again.
Like Crosby, Penguins goaltender Marc-André Fleury was impressed with the Leafs' offensive prowess. He said their speed is tough to handle and van Riemsdyk, who put Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin out of the game late in the third period with a big hit, is a special problem.
"They have a lot of speed and put pucks to the net," Fleury said. "[Van Riemsdyk] is a big guy and always close to me. It's tough to find the puck around him."
SID THE KID GETS BACK IN THE GROOVE
With 40 points in 25 games, Sidney Crosby, above, is on top of the points race in the NHL and seems to have put his concussion worries behind him. He has played in every one of the Pittsburgh Penguins' games this season, something he has not been able to do since around November, 2010, not long before he suffered the first of at least two concussions that would cost him 101 regular-season games over the next two seasons. "The timing is there; it took a little while to get that," Crosby said. "I'm just happy to be playing a lot of games," adding that he is "getting there" when it comes to feeling confident he can do just about anything on the ice. "I forget kind of what that feels like to be honest," he said. "But I feel comfortable every night. Some nights are tougher than others but with the way our team is playing right now it makes it better for everyone individually when we're all going [as a team]."