Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins: 7:00 p.m.
Watch on: Sportsnet, TVAS, NBCSN, ATTSN-PT
Opponent’s site: Pensburgh
This is how it works: For every game you blow against a low-ranked opponent, the path gets harder. A rock gets plunked in your way labelled Pittsburgh Penguins, and then another, and then one that says Carolina Hurricanes — but we’re not there yet, forget them. For now we have this:
Sheldon Keefe on #Leafs: "This is the worst we've been in a really long time. We haven't really put our game together for quite some time, but this was different today where for most of the game it didn't feel like we were in the building at all."— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) February 17, 2020
Which leads to this:
And sure, there’s been bad coaching, failed systems and bad goalies, injuries and the flu and the refs, my god, the refs, and Cody Ceci on the top pair and it’s all just too much for any team to cope with.
Is it? I mean, is it too much? What if your starter is almost as bad as Devan Dubnyk, and the backup is all that’s keeping you in some games? What if your star centre goes down, and then what if the other one’s hurt too? What if your crucial top line winger is out for the entire rest of the season?
What if, my friends, you’re playing Jack Johnson on your top pair because you’re capped the hell out up front, and he’s what you have?
And what if that tale of woe puts you at 78 points, one away from the number one spot in the Metro? And what if the Metro is actually the hard division, the one with a lot more teams than the Atlantic still in the race?
The Pittsburgh Penguins picked up an injured Sidney Crosby, an LTIRed Jake Guentzel, Jack Johnson and the used-to-be-good Matt Murray, and they’ve marched to 4th place in All-Situations Expected Goals For %. They sit behind only Vegas (who are the actual team in the NHL being sewered by their goaltending) Tampa, and Boston. They are, in other words, a complete package even when injured, sick, capped out, or with a flaky starter.
And now the Leafs need to play them twice in three days.
Why aren’t the Leafs in their class, which they emphatically aren’t? One of the big reasons why is that Auston Matthews + John Tavares < Sidney Crosby + Evgeni Malkin. That seems to need to be said these days, but it’s true.
The Penguins have also built their extremely successful season on top of a Corsi For % as good as the Leafs (which means top 10 in the league all season long), but augmented with some fantastic Expected Goals against. They don’t have the absolute worst possible system to have in front of a flaky goalie, they have the best. They are defensively solid as a rock with some rookie college boy named John Marino along with Johnson playing over 1,000 minutes. (Hey, is defending more about team systems than individual defender star power? I wonder sometimes, I really do.)
Meanwhile up front, Teddy Blueger has played the most of any forward. Do you know who that is? No, me neither. But I do know they have only five players who have been in every game so far.
When Crosby is out or Murray is just not making the saves, the team can still win it on their shooting skill and good but not great offence because their basic system keeps them afloat. Now that they’ve added Zucker to replace Guentzel and have Crosby and Malkin ready to go for the playoffs, they aren’t scrapping and scraping for a playoff berth, they’re practising their killer instinct by going for first place.
The Leafs, meanwhile, sure look like a team that needs laboratory conditions in order to win.
Maple Leafs Lines
From the Buffalo game, with scratches listed
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
William Nylander - John Tavares - Alexander Kerfoot
Kyle Clifford -Pierre Engvall - Kasperi Kapanen
Egor Korshkov - Jason Spezza - Mason Marchment
Dmytro Timashov, Frederik Gauthier
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Travis Dermott - Tyson Barrie
Rasmus Sandin - Timothy Liljegren
UPDATE: Submitted without comment.
Lines at Leafs morning skate in Pittsburgh— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 18, 2020
Andersen in starter’s net
UPDATE: Aston-Reese is out week-to-week, so there will be some other guy we’ve never heard of drawing in to get a hat trick.
Jason Zucker - Sidney Crosby - Dominik Simon
Jared McCann - Evgeni Malkin -Bryan Rust
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev
Sam Lafferty - Andrew Agozzino - Patric Hornqvist
Jack Johnson - Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson - Justin Schultz
Juuso Riikola - Chad Ruhwedel
The Leafs brought out some new faces for the loss in Buffalo, and the lines you see above are not exactly how Keefe played them all game. His successful depth line was Korshkov, Spezza and Clifford. If that’s your fourth line, you’re gold. They actually got played more like the third line, and the actual third line, who featured Mason Marchment a lot, were terrible with and without him. The whole lot of the bottom six and the third pairing defenders played less than 12:13, the ice time of Marchment, the guy who got the most out of the whole crowd.
None of that makes any sense to me at all, having watched the game, having watched the team lately as Auston Matthews becomes the most used forward in the NHL, and the rest of the team can’t pick up anyone and march anywhere even playing the weakest opponents.
I can’t predict who will play tonight, or how much. All I know is that the most extreme top-six/bottom-six split in hockey since the days of facepunchers and PKers parked in the bottom half does not look like a successful formula to me. Not on the results. Not unless the goalie is almost perfect all game long and everything else goes exactly right.
I’m sorry this isn’t a pump you up preview, but I’m at the point where I need this team to prove they are more than one line per night for one-two periods of good play. Are they just merely good at offence some of the time? Or are they a good hockey team?
The Leafs have nine periods of hockey to play between now and Monday, the trade deadline, against teams that are very hard to play against. And then, for the cherry on top, there’s a trip to Florida where they face Tampa and then the Panthers.
If that Florida game is to be the game where the Leafs essentially (if not mathematically) clinch their playoff spot, they need to play all the periods of hockey in between now and then like they are a serious, mature team with a formula for success in their heads and the desire to execute it for 60 minutes of every game.
You built this mountain you need to climb, Leafs, so get going. Starting tonight.