Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (31-11-8, 70 points, 1st place Metropolitan Division) @ Toronto Maple Leafs (31-12-3, 65 points, 3rd place Atlantic Division)
When: 7:00 p.m. Eastern
How to Watch: AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh (ATTSN-PT) locally in the Western PA viewing area, Sportsnet One or RDS in Canada, ESPN+
Opponent Track: Toronto is returning home tonight from a three game Western swing, where they only went 1-2-0. The Leafs dropped games in Calgary and Vancouver last week before salvaging the trip with a 6-2 win over Seattle on Monday in their last game out.
Pens Path Ahead: With two days off after tonight, in their 52nd game of the season the Pens will finally play division rival Carolina for the first time this year on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. Then it’s three days off before the Penguins host New Jersey a week from today in a nice stretch for the upcoming week with only a few games.
Hidden Stat: It’s strength on strength tonight: Toronto’s 17-4-4 home record is the second best in the East. Pittsburgh’s 17-5-3 away record is the best in the NHL.
Hidden Stat Part II: Staying out of the penalty box will be imperative for both teams, as the Pens and Leafs are the only two NHL teams with 20+ power play goals so far in calendar 2022. Toronto at 33.3% in 2022 has the league’s best power play in the new year, Pittsburgh at 31.1% isn’t far behind.
Trivia Question: Tonight is the Penguins last regular season game in Canada for the year. They have a 5-2-1 record north of the border. Which Canadian teams has Pittsburgh lost to on the road?
Season Series: Pittsburgh looks for the season sweep of Toronto tonight. The Pens dropped a 7-1 beatdown on the Leafs way back on October 23rd in Pittsburgh, and then the Pens took Round 2 with a 2-0 shutout victory on November 20th.
SBN Counterpart Blog: Check out Pension Plan Puppets for the latest and greatest about the Leafs.
—With 32 goals and 57 points in 43 games, Auston Matthews is having an elite season. That’s a full-season pace of 61 goals! Matthews leads the NHL with 73 goals in just 95 games since the start of the 2020-21 season, he’s truly become the league’s most consistent and dangerous goal scorer.
—Mitch Marner missed almost all of December, came back in January to two scoreless games and then has gone totally bonkers. Not sure what got into his cheerios but he’s got a very Bryan Rust-ian level production of 11G+11A in his last 11 games going since January 15th. Marner has scored 60+ points in all five of his NHL seasons, so production isn’t new, but this past month has certainly been the best goal-scoring streak of his career.
—One other red hot player in blue? Michael Bunting with 8G+2A in the last 11 games. Before this season Bunting, 26, had only played 26 total NHL games with Arizona. This year he’s already smashed personal goal (15), assist (17) and point (32) totals. Even better for the cap-strapped Leafs is that Bunting is locked in next year for a very team-friendly $950k salary cap hit.
—Big, gritty Nick Ritchie got waived, cleared and assigned to the minors. He’s got this year and next on a $2.5m cap hit.
—And speaking of free agent disappointments, remember when so many were up in arms on “Ron Hextall, dump Jarry go get a free agent goalie” last summer? The goalie market was crazy hot and Petr Mrazek cashed in for $3.8m for three years from Toronto as a goalie who always gets hurt. This year he, wait for it, got hurt and has barely been a factor. Fortunately for the Leafs, Jack Campbell played the first quarter of the season at tremendous, Vezina caliber levels (but he has dropped off as of lately as we noted earlier in the week). Anyways, Hextall looks like a genius for being patient with Jarry and sitting tight.
—Toronto has been a very top heavy team. In the last month since Jan. 15th (those 11 games), they have an 8-3-0 record with 49 goals good for 4.45 per game which is tops in the NHL over this stretch. Their top line of Bunting (8), Matthews (8) and Marner (11) have scored 55% of the goals, with no other player having more than three in the last month. Secondary scoring has been not been a huge issue with 15 total players finding the back of the net at least once, but their key players are totally driving the bus right now. (Which also is similar in Pittsburgh).
Wednesday Practice Lines
Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Alex Kerfoot - John Tavares - William Nylander
Ilya Mikheyev - David Kampf - Ondrej Kase
Pierre Engvall - Jason Spezza - Wayne Simmonds
Morgan Rielly / T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin / Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin / Timothy Liljegren
Goalies: Jack Campbell (Petr Mrazek)
Scratches: Travis Dermott
COVID Protocol: none
IR: Adam Brooks
—Stopping or at least limiting that top line is going to be a huge challenge tonight for the Dumoulin/Letang pair. Toronto’s top-six forward group + top-four defense are pretty much as class and elite as you can hope for in the NHL right now on paper.
—Team health is pretty good in Toronto right now, as it has been all season, relatively speaking. Six skaters have played every game, 12 have appeared in 40 of the 46 game, and all of the big guns have been mostly available.
And now for the Pens..
Wednesday Practice Lines
Jake Guentzel - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Danton Heinen - Evgeni Malkin - Jeff Carter
Brock McGinn - Evan Rodrigues - Kasperi Kapanen
Zach Aston-Reese - Brian Boyle - Dominik Simon
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson / John Marino
Mike Matheson / Chad Ruhwedel
Goalies: Tristan Jarry (Casey DeSmith)
Scratches: Mark Friedman, Radim Zohorna
COVID Protocol: none
IR: Drew O’Connor (practicing), Jason Zucker (week-to-week, core surgery), Louis Domingue, Teddy Blueger (week-to-week, broken jaw)
—The Pens finally shuffled their middle forward lines after weeks of ineffective combinations.
“We’re trying some different combinations to generate [sustained offense],” coach Mike Sullivan said yesterday. “Nothing’s etched in stone.”
—It’s exciting to see Rodrigues and Kapanen back together, the two have found success in limited looks. The Pens are outscoring the opposition by an eye-popping 13-1 margin with both on the ice together at 5v5 this season in 228 total minutes.
The defensive portion can rightfully be looked at with skepticism - they have unreal goaltending (.989%) that won’t sustain forever. That have only seen 1 GA happen probably mostly due to factors outside of their control as offensive-minded players.
The more important takeaway is that offensive side of things. The duo has helped generate 3.4 Goals For/60 this season, with a reasonable 9.9% on ice shooting percentage that isn’t a result of flukes or fortunate shooting bounces. Their xGF% is well over 60% together and they make up some of the best advanced stat lines out there, they have made a lot of good things happen.
Both Rordrigues and Kapanen have gone cold and been invisible at times, it’s worth a shot to pair them back together to see if they can find the magic they had earlier in the season. Especially in a game like this with both teams having such skilled top-six groups, the difference could come down to which third line can step up.
Milestone and streak watch
- After a two point night on Tuesday, Sidney Crosby (1,371) is now three points behind tying Mike Modano (1,374) for 25th place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.
- Crosby is also on a seven game point streak (3G+9A).
- Jake Guentzel is matching Sid with points in seven straight games (4G+7A).
- Kris Letang’s goal on Tuesday set a new record for most total overtime points by a defenseman in NHL history (30), passing Erik Karlsson (29). Detroit’s Nick Lidstrom remains in third (26) all-time.
- Letang has 39 assists on the season, one shy of hitting the 40-assist plateau for the sixth time in his career.
- Tristan Jarry (25) is one win away from establishing a personal season-high in that department. Jarry ranks second in the NHL for wins (Andrei Vasilevskiy, 26).
- The Penguins have won six straight road games, a win tonight would tie the longest road winning streak in the NHL this season (Toronto and Vegas each have a streak of seven). The franchise’s longest road winning streak is eight games, set in the 2015-16 season.
Trivia answer: The Pens are 5-2-1 in Canada this season, the question was which three games have they lost north of the border? The regulation losses were in Edmonton, 5-2, back on December 1st and to Ottawa, 6-3 on November 13th. The Pens fell in a shootout, 2-1 in Calgary on November 29th. They have won in Canadian cities this season in Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and once in Ottawa to avenge their earlier loss.