It only took 20 seconds for Auston Matthews to make a mark on this game, and it ended up really setting the tone for the Maple Leafs en route to a 4-1 win over the visiting Penguins.
Toronto struck for Matthews’ goal in transition, as they would several more times. The Penguins got pulled out of their defensive structure with Brian Dumoulin charging down the wall to hold the puck in. He accomplished that reasonably enough but Bryan Rust couldn’t control the bouncing puck which quickly was advanced up to Auston Matthews. Sidney Crosby was marking Matthews and failed to stop the pass, and it was automatic for the league’s best goal scorer on the breakaway to open the scoring just 20 seconds into the contest.
With Evan Rodrigues in the penalty box in the second period, Toronto struck again. Morgan Rielly goes coast to coast like Space Ghost, apparently lulling the Pens’ defense into thinking he was going to drop the puck. Which maybe he intended to do, but other then some minor harassment by Brian Boyle, no other Pittsburgh player stopped Rielly so he just kept going until he was in on Tristan Jarry. A hard shot off the bar and in made it a 2-0 game.
Down 2-0, the Pens got a late second period power play and chance to get back into the game but...It didn’t go that way. Kris Letang got pressured and pressure makes mistakes. Letang made one making a blind pass where there was only a Maple Leaf. Play goes the other way, and it’s in the net. 3-0.
Early in the third, the Pens skaters finally show a sign of life. Jeff Carter and Evgeni Malkin combine to get themselves and the puck to the net, and it’s Malkin who finds the rebound left by goalie Jack Campbell and punches it in from up front to get Pittsburgh on the board but still in a 3-1 hole with 16:27 left to work with.
Hopes for a comeback were short lived when Brian Dumoulin tried a shot that got blocked and the Leafs made the Pens pay in transition again. Matthews made a nice pass over for Michael Bunting, who out-waited an aggressive move by Jarry to tuck it into the open net on his backhand and extend the lead back to 4-1.
A weird moment happened when Auston Matthews tried to chase Sidney Crosby around the net but instead skated face first into the post. Matthews looked like he lost a tooth, left for a bit but was able to return later in the game.
Auston Matthews goes face-first into the post pic.twitter.com/fi5ZPqh8Gx— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 18, 2022
The Pens get some score effect aided shots to have a nice period, but can’t crack Jack Campbell and time runs out, mercifully on this one.
- Ugly game from the start, not many silver linings in this one for the Pens. They were on a four-game winning streak, and able to make multi-goal comebacks on Boston and Philadelphia in them. That wasn’t in the cards tonight.
- Jarry was good to hold them in for a while though, it’s a credit and testament to him that Pittsburgh even was remotely close to this game late in the second period. He was stopping a ton of quality shots.
- Speaking of, about halfway through the game I thought it was wild Matthews didn’t have four goals. He scored early, deflected a puck off Jarry’s mask, was stopped on a partial break. Had a chance on the power play in front of the net. Just seemed like every time he was on the ice he was getting the puck in dangerous spots and getting it to the net. Matthews was the best player on the ice in this game, by a pretty big margin.
- All four of Toronto’s goals were on the rush or in transition. The Pens were just a little sloppy or off on all the plays. If Rust knocks the puck down, no worries. If Letang doesn’t freeze up and give it away, no problem. If Dumoulin’s shot attempt isn’t quickly advanced by Mitch Marner (nice play by him, credit there), well you get the idea. The urge by fans seems to always be to blame the system or execution but sometimes in a high speed game against a fast and good opponent, the puck follows them around a bit. The Pens certainly weren’t sharp though, it’s fair to say.
- Matthews also beat Sidney Crosby head-to-head on the first five faceoffs the two squared up on. Don’t see that every day, but speaks to that no matter where you look, the Pens just weren’t measuring up on this night.
- The Pittsburgh power play was atrocious, even before the massive mistake Letang made. No one seemed to be handling the puck very well. No less than Crosby was making poor passes. Just was off, 0-for-5 night with a goal against and somehow just listing that doesn’t it make it sound as bad as it was.
- The new Heinen-Malkin-Carter line could be considered one bright spot, that line looked fresh. All three members had four+ shots. Malkin and Carter traded off taking faceoffs depending on if it was the strong side for the left or right handed player. Carter just carrying the puck in the zone and dishing to Malkin was a lot more offensive support than he’s received at even strength in a long while.
- The other new line, more mixed results. A review of Evan Rodrigues back-checking on Bunting on the Toronto fourth goal was...not very pretty. Rodrigues also took his first and second minor penalties of the season. Kasperi Kapanen was quiet against his old team, he actually did use his speed to get a look late in the game and without defenders on him shot the puck about 10 feet high and wide off the rush.
- Hey, in the big picture the Pens went 2-1-0 against a future playoff qualifier like Toronto this season. Knowing that in October, you’d take that. Can’t win ‘em all, so Pittsburgh will have to settle for being 26-6-4 now in their last 36 games.
Well, that wasn’t much fun. Games like this are bound to pop up every once in a while, and they’re a lot easier to handle when in first place and have a few days off before the next one to get some rest, practices, reset and move forward.