In what turned out to be an extremely ugly and uneventful game, the Toronto Maple Leafs redeemed themselves with a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. With these two teams playing their second game against each other in two nights many people were curious to see how the Leafs would respond following after blowing a late third period 4-1 lead the night before eventually losing in a shootout. Tonight’s contest was the polar opposite of last nights game though. Both teams came changed tactics from the night before as the emphasis was placed on defensive zone play and strong positioning.
James Reimer started his first game since a January 17th loss to the Ottawa Senators, and while the Penguins did beat him four times tonight, the Leafs goalie of the future stopped 25 shots for his second shutout of the season. Pittsburgh were unfortunate on the night as they rang the iron three times behind Reimer. When they actually did put the puck in the net the officials converged and correctly disallowed the goal as Pens winger Chris Kunitz kicked the puck past a helpless Reimer. The Leafs goalie was strong when he needed to be, and while the defensive play of the Leafs blueline was critical to their success, Reimer did stop both Matt Cooke and NHL leading scorer Evgeny Malkin on partial breakaways.
With less than seven minutes left in the third period the Leafs finally ended the deadlock. The red-hot line of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur capitalized on a once again effective night, as they broke out of their own zone with speed. Grabovski found MacArthur, who calmly avoided Pens goalie Brent Johnson before depositing the puck in a wide open net. The Leafs trio once again were handed the task of shutting down Malkin and his linemates, and for the second straight game the Leafs reformed line outplayed the leagues hottest scorer. That Leafs line has combined for 19 points in their last 3 games. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf was also key to stopping Malkin as he logged a game high 27:49 on the night.
The game also had a bit of chippiness to it, and with these teams facing each other twice in as many nights it was to be expected. Penguins star defenseman Kris Letang was the focal point of the physical play tonight. In the first period Letang took a Phil Kessel stick to the face, cutting him open. Towards the end of the opening frame Letang lined up Grabovski and laid the Leafs centre out in open ice. Letang also ran Kulemin from behind with a late hit taking a two minute minor in the process. Toronto targeted Letang as often as possible tonight as both Joffrey Lupul and Joey Crabb took repeated runs at the Penguins blueline leader.
With the victory the Leafs moved past the idle New Jersey Devils and into 7th spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Although the Devils do have two games in hand on the Leafs, Toronto sits only two points behind the 6th place Ottawa Senators with two games in hand on their provincial rivals. While the Leafs were certainly disappointed to have blown the lead in the first game with the Penguins, they did manage to achieve three of a possible four points against the hottest team in the league as tonight’s loss ended Pittsburgh’s 8 game winning streak.
Men of the Match
Leafs: Nikolai Kulemin – The young Russian started the play that led to the Leafs goal as he backed the Pens defense off with his speed before feeding Grabovksi. Kulemin may not be getting goals, but his two way play has been stellar of late. With his assist tonight he now has 5 in his last 3 games, and he was a major reason that Malkin was once again held in check tonight.
Penguins: Kris Letang – He is an absolute joy to watch, and frustrating to root against. Strong offensively and skilled with the puck, Letang was a constant factor at both ends of the ice. Yes he did take two minor penalties in the game, but his head hunting and physical play kept the Leafs forwards on their toes all night. Played 25:00 exactly on the night to lead the Penguins.
Next Game: The Leafs will head to Ottawa to face the slumping Senators – losers of 4 straight – Saturday night.