In a game befitting a clash of Eastern Conference titans, the Penguins and Maple Leafs put on a show Saturday night for the 19,526 fans in attendance at Air Canada Centre. Powered by Jonas Gustavsson’s 34-save effort and NHL scoring leader Phil Kessel’s 10th goal of the season, the Leafs prevailed 4-3 in a riveting, seesaw battle.
Toronto was particularly effective down low, using its speed and skill to confound the Penguins below the hash marks. Meanwhile, the visitors clearly missed two-way stalwart and penalty-killing ace Jordan Staal, who sat out with a lower-body injury.
Mikhail Grabovski opened the scoring for Ron Wilson’s crew at 11:31 of the first period with a power-play tally. Incredibly, it was the first five-on-four goal allowed by the Penguins all season, snapping a supernatural string of 20-consecutive penalty kills.
Pittsburgh responded midway through the second period thanks to some good old-fashioned hustle by Arron Asham. After being stopped by Gustavsson, the feisty winger dug the puck off the end-boards and shoveled it out to Ben Lovejoy at the point. The black-and-gold defender cut loose a blast that popped off of Gustavsson’s pads and right to Matt Cooke, who was planted in the crease. “Cookie” banged in the rebound to knot the score at 1-1.
Typifying the back-and-forth nature of the contest, the Leafs countered moments later. Thirteen seconds after Evgeni Malkin was whistled off for hooking, Tim Connolly beat Pens goalie Brent Johnson to reclaim the lead for Toronto.
The never-say-die Penguins struck back with a power-play goal of their own at 15:06. Displaying remarkable poise, Malkin coolly out-waited a Toronto defender at the top of the left circle before lasering a shot on Gustavsson. Again the puck skipped off the rangy goalie’s pads and into the crease, where Chris Kunitz converted for his fourth goal in six games.
With the score deadlocked at 2-2, the Leafs turned up the heat in the third period. Following a pair of near misses by Philippe Dupuis and John-Michael Liles, Clarke MacArthur waded through a scramble around Johnson to tuck the puck inside the right post at 3:08.
Once more the Pens bounced back. While working on a five-on-three power play, Malkin beat Gustavsson with a bullet from the high slot to tie the game again. The stage was set for Kessel, who gathered in a pretty cross-ice pass from Connolly and snapped the go-head goal past Johnson at 10:08.
“We matched his speed and did a good job against him [Kessel],” Kris Letang said. “In the end, the puck found him.”
The Penguins nearly evened the score a fourth time with five minutes left, when James Neal raced in on the Toronto net unchecked. But Gustavsson stacked his pads to rob the Pens’ sniper of a sure goal.
Letang and Malkin paced the Penguins with two points apiece … Toronto was 2-for-2 on the power play … The Pens out-shot the Leafs 37-29 … Deryk Engelland and Kunitz registered four hits each … The Leafs won the face-off battle, 30-26 … Sidney Crosby, Tyler Kennedy, Steve MacIntyre, Zbynek Michalek, Jordan Staal, and Brian Strait were scratches.
The Penguins (8-3-2) get a well-deserved break before heading west to meet San Jose (6-3) on Thursday. The Pens trail the Sharks (11-12-5) in the all-time series.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.