A late comeback by the Pittsburgh Penguins was not enough to undo the damage of a disastrous start on Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs struck quickly, often, and never looked back in their clash at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
The Leafs scored twice in the first two minutes and hung on to knock off the Penguins 4-3 to claim their fourth win in five meetings over the reigning Stanley Cup champions dating back to December 2015.
Leafs explode out of the gate
It took less than two minutes for one of the league’s most potent offences to go to work on the reigning champions. First, it was Connor Brown winning a battle with two Penguins to control the puck just to the left of Pens' rookie keeper Tristan Jarry.
He then fed it to Morgan Rielly, who circled the top of the Pens' zone before sneaking a cross-ice pass back to Brown who popped an easy shot into a wide-open cage 1:23 into the first period.
The Maple Leafs have been known for scoring in bunches this season and continued that trend in Pittsburgh. 19 seconds after Brown gave the Leafs the early lead, Mitch Marner took control of the puck off a deflection around the Pittsburgh net.
He forced Jarry down with a wrap-around attempt, before shoveling a pass to James van Riemsdyk. JVR fired the puck through a crowd to give Toronto a 2-0 lead before the two-minute mark of the first period.
The Penguins rallied and would dominate the play for the next 10 minutes, although they failed to put much pressure on the red-hot Leaf netminder Frederik Andersen. A great shift from the Leafs’ checking line would start to turn the momentum back before another disaster struck for the Penguins.
A turnover in the neutral zone handed Marner the puck, who fired an innocent looking shot on net that Jarry failed to cover. Leafs’ centre Tyler Bozak was the first man there and took a few whacks at the loose puck before finally flipping one past Jarry to open up a 3-0 lead.
Two steps forward, one step back
Looking to shake things up, Pittsburgh returned to the ice for the second period with Casey DeSmith between the pipes. The Penguins did a far better job of containing the speedy Leafs in the second, matching them shot for shot.
Finally, with just over five minutes to go in the period, the Penguins broke in on a 2-on-1 rush, courtesy of Ryan Reaves yanking the stick out of the hands of Rielly in the neutral zone (which went uncalled). Riley Sheahan took the pass from Dominik Simon and poked it past Andersen to put Pittsburgh on the board.
After some pressure from the Leafs, Pittsburgh was handed a chance to close the gap even more, when Zack Hyman was sent to the penalty box for high-sticking. Another questionable non-call gave the Pens life as Patric Hornqvist hacked the stick out of the hands of Dominic Moore, but the play was allowed to continue.
Soon after, Sidney Crosby failed to bury the puck in front of the open net, only for the puck to make its way up the boards to Evgeni Malkin, who picked the top corner to close the gap to 3-2.
But as they often have this season, the Maple Leafs responded quickly. Before the Malkin goal could even be announced, Jake Gardiner fired a point shot on net which Bozak managed to tip just under the crossbar to re-establish the two-goal lead 22 seconds after Pittsburgh shrunk it.
Toronto hangs on
The Penguins finally began to look like the Stanley Cup champions in the third period, controlling the pace right from the beginning. However, the Leafs' defence was able to stand strong, holding off Pittsburgh for most of the period, although they were unable to generate much offence of their own.
With just under three minutes to play, the Penguins made it interesting. With the Pens moving into the Toronto zone, Rielly collided with Auston Matthews allowing Kris Letang to slip in alone in front of Andersen. Letang fed Crosby sitting open at the side of the net who easily fired in his 13th of the season to once again close the gap to a single goal.
With the net empty, the Penguins poured on the pressure and despite beating Andersen, Olli Maatta could not beat the post as a point shot rang off the bar in the final minute. The Leafs were able to hang on for another dramatic win over the Penguins.
By the numbers
Once again, the Leafs leaned on Freddie Andersen, who made 33 saves on 36 shots to score a big win for Leafs. Toronto only managed 25 shots of their own, although they gave their goalie plenty of support with 23 blocked shots.
Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby led the way with eight and seven shots respectively. Leafs' star Auston Matthews was quiet again, failing to register a point or even a shot.
James van Riemsdyk's goal allowed him to retake the outright team goals lead with 14. The penalty kills were strong on Saturday night, with Pittsburgh killing the lone penalty they took, while Toronto killed three of four.
The Penguins will be back on the ice on Monday when they host the Colorado Avalanche, while the Leafs will have to rush home to host another one of the league’s superstars, as Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers will be in Toronto on Sunday night.