PITTSBURGH — Say this about the work in progress that is the Toronto Maple Leafs — when they want to, they can skate and compete with any team in the NHL, the reigning Stanley Cup champs included.
But when it comes to playing responsible, reliable defence, there are plenty of lessons still to be learned.
The Penguins peppered Leafs goaltender Freddy Andersen with 49 shots en route to a 4-1 win Saturday night at the PPG Paints Arena. It was a game that the Leafs weren’t necessarily going to win, but it could have been a lot closer if it weren’t for the all-too-familiar collapses in their own end.
“We gave up way too many shots, way too many Grade A chances,” said forward Zach Hyman, who scored the lone Leafs goal, his second in as many nights. “Freddy kept us in it for a long time. If you give them that many chances, they’re going to score.”
The frustrating thing from coach Mike Babcock’s perspective was that it wasn’t the high skill goals that the Penguins have in their arsenal that did the Leafs in on this night.
Instead, it was grinding, go-to-the net plays that helped the Pens to the title last spring. All four Pittsburgh goals came from within feet of Andersen’s crease. And for much of the net, the Leafs were far too slow moving the puck out of their own end, a proven strength of their opponent.
“We gave up two bad goals from D zone coverage and we had three tonight where we could have done a better job,” said Babcock, whose team fell to 6-6-3 and still has just one road victory (1-4-3). “We generated a lot of chances as well, but we gave up way too many chances with our D zone play. We’ve got to fix that, obviously.
“I thought we were too loose as the game went on.”
Despite playing their second game in as many nights, the Leafs were in it until Chris Kunitz popped in the go-ahead goal with 18 seconds left in the second period. Typical of the Leafs’ play in their own end, Kunitz was one of three unchecked Penguins within spitting distance of Andersen.
The Leafs opened the scoring on Hyman’s goal just 1:22 into the game and that clearly gave the team a boost. Evgeni Malkin tied it when he scooped up a loose puck off the end boards on a power play at 3:06 of the second.
“They are strong around the net and determined,” said Andersen, who had a licence to be weary after facing the Philadelphia Flyers at home the night before. “All four goals were ugly goals around there. They are first on the pucks. That’s something we can maybe learn from.
“They were hungrier than we were.”
As is so typical when the Leafs play the Pens, Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby was a factor, notching a goal and an assist as the game got out of hand in the third.
The outburst gave him 32 points in 19 career home games against the Leafs. And his goal, in which he shook loose from Leafs defenceman Martin Marincin to redirect a Brian Dumoulin shot, was his 10th of the season in just nine games and second only to Winnipeg rookie Patrick Laine in that department.
Crosby and the Pens were well aware that they could force the issue as the game went deeper and the young Leafs legs grew wearier.
“Playing a team on back-to-back nights, you just want to take advantage as much as you can,” Crosby said. “We did a good job keeping our foot on the gas and applying pressure.
With the win, the Pens improved to 7-1-1 at home this season and are 10-3-2 overall, one of just four teams in the NHL with 10 wins. The 49 shots on goal were a season high and the most by the Pens under head coach Mike Sullivan.
Pittsburgh also increased its unbeaten streak over the Leafs to 8-0-1 as goaltender Matt Murray made a career-high 35 saves to improve his season’s record to 4-0.
The Leafs certainly had their own chances, including a penalty kill in which the second period when they had three outstanding opportunities.
The shot attempts margin was closer than the shot clock itself, with the Pens holding a 73-65 edge. But many of the Leafs opportunities came from the perimeter or were fired an instant too late, affording good looks for Murray.
Though the Leafs competed much harder than they did in the blowout 7-0 home loss to Los Angeles earlier in the week, they got a first-hand look at how the Cup champs roll.
“They are a good skating team, we saw it last year in the playoffs,” said defenceman Matt Hunwick, who returned to the Leafs lineup after missing eight games due to a lower-body injury. “We played too much in our own zone. Obviously, giving up (almost) 50 shots is indicative of that.”