Who: Toronto Maple Leafs (2-2-1, 5 points) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (2-0-2, 6 points)
When: 7:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: AT&T Sportsnet locally in Pittsburgh, Sportsnet in Canada, NHL Network nationally in America
Opponent Track: Toronto has been in a lot of low scoring, close games this season. The Leafs started the year with a 2-1 win over Montreal, before splitting two games with Ottawa (a 3-2 loss and 3-1 win) followed up with losing 2-1 in OT to NYR. Then last night Toronto had a home game against San Jose where they lost 5-3 before coming down to Pittsburgh for the second half of a back-to-back tonight.
Pens path ahead: Up next for the Pens, Tampa comes to town on Tuesday, followed by Calgary on Thursday and New Jersey makes their way to Pittsburgh next Saturday (Oct 30), as the Pens’ long, long string of home games continues.
Season Series: The Pens go to Toronto for another Saturday prime time game on November 20th, then Pittsburgh travels back to Toronto on Wednesday December 29th for the final game of the season series.
Random fact: Pittsburgh’s 11 points (1G+10A) from their defensemen this season are tied for sixth-most in the NHL.
SBN Team Counterpart: Check out Pension Plan Puppets for the latest news to know about the Leafs.
—Not a lot going on early offensively, as the Leafs have only scored 11 goals in their first five games including where Auston Matthews missed the first three games of the season.
—Mitch Marner is off to a slow start, and almost unbelievably has not scored a power play goal in almost two full calendar years.
Nick Ritchie - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Michael Bunting - John Tavares - William Nylander
Alex Kerfoot - David Kampf - Ondrej Kase
Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza - Wayne Simmonds
Morgan Rielly / T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin / Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin / Travis Dermott
Goalies: Jack Campbell
Scratches: Michael Amadio, Timothy Liljegren
IR: Ilya Mikheyev (LTIR)
—This sure looks like a game where the Pens being without the services of their top three centers poses a very big challenge. Matthews and Tavares are among the best 1-2 center combos in the league, and Pittsburgh will have to rely on a team effort to shut down a lot of skill in the top six.
—With Petr Mrazek being injured, goalie has already been a goat rodeo early for Toronto. They played Michael Hutchinson last night, which clears up Jack Campbell to play today. Campbell has come into his own, playing in the playoffs last year for the Leafs and has a 19-3-3 regular season record since the start of last year, which should make for a formidable challenge for the Pens tonight.
Low-key player profile
“Low-key” and “Toronto” is very oxymoronic in hockey, but try we shall. 26-year old Michael Bunting is a player who was drafted by Arizona in 2014 and played mainly in the minors leagues as a productive player, before getting a chance with the Coyotes last season and scoring an impressive 10 goals and 13 points in 21 games.
Bunting qualified for Group VI free agency due to his age and low NHL games played (26) and signed with his hometown Leafs on a two-year deal worth a cap friendly $950,000 this summer.
Despite being listed at just 6’0 and 186 pounds, Bunting has been affectionately called a “greasy rat” by a teammate for his tenacious style of play. From Sportsnet earlier this month:
All Bunting does is score, apparently. And crawl under his opponents’ skin.
“He certainly is a guy that makes no friends on the ice,” says coach Sheldon Keefe, a fan of Bunting’s since he had him in the Soo.
“Just in terms of the hunger and the competitiveness he has around the net, because he’s always looking to get an edge on you. I’m really happy that he’s gotten the results that he’s gotten here in the first two games. It allows his confidence to grow, allows him to settle in here with us.”
The edge that the left winger has carried from AA minor hockey in the Greater Toronto Hockey League to a stint in the ECHL to a little UFA bidding war in his mid-20s, Bunting says it’s how he forces himself into the game.
“Getting the other team after me or to get in their head, I feel like that’s when I’m playing my best. When they’re chasing after me and not worried about the game, that helps us out. So, I don’t mind playing that role,” Bunting said.
“The road I took to get here isn’t the normal one everybody takes, so I take pride in that and I (embrace) it every day. You can’t take this thing for granted; it can go just as fast as it can come. You appreciate it a little bit more (because) it did take a little bit for me to get here. It has been a grind.”
A player with youth to infuse some skill, scoring and gritty play without a big cap hit is truly a Godsend for any contender, but especially a team like Toronto that has so much of their salary structure tied up by four huge contracts. Bunting has fit in well and looks like a very nice addition to the team.
And now for the Pens..
Friday Practice Lines
Jake Guentzel - Evan Rodrigues - Kasperi Kapanen
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brock McGinn
Jason Zucker - Drew O’Connor - Danton Heinen
Dominik Simon - Brian Boyle - Sam Lafferty
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Mike Matheson / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalie: Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith
Scratches: Mark Friedman (healthy), Jeff Carter (COVID protocol)
IR: Evgeni Malkin (knee), Bryan Rust (week-to-week injury), Sidney Crosby (wrist)
—The Pens shift their lines around again to account for the loss of Carter. O’Connor figures to make his debut as a center in the NHL, after a successful turn there last year in the AHL and also at times in training camp.
—The split of Zucker and Kapanen for the first time this season also should boost team balance, as they have been two of the best process players early in the season so far for Pittsburgh.
—Kapanen should be jumping at the bit to get going on a line with Guentzel. It will be Kapanen’s first game playing against his old team since Toronto traded him to the Pens in 2020.
—Jarry was deemed a false positive on his COVID tests and was able to practice yesterday. He missed some time earlier this week, so it remains to be seen if the team will throw him back into the game or go with DeSmith for this one.
A unique team
We all knew it would have to be a team effort without Crosby and Malkin early in the year, and to a man the Pens have done really well at all stepping up. 12 different players have recorded a goal, which is leading the league so far for unique goal scorers in 2021-22. From the Pens’ PR staff (data as of Friday afternoon):
Pittsburgh has started the season off red hot, picking up points in the team’s first four games (2-0-2) for the first time since the 2011-12 season (3-0-1). An emerging theme through four games is the Penguins ability to fill the net, as they’ve scored four-plus goals in all but one game, and lead the NHL with 16 goals for.
A huge contributing factor to the Penguins early success is depth scoring from all four lines. Pittsburgh has an NHL-best 12 unique goal scorers:
Team Unique Goal Scorers
St. Louis 10