In the wake of last night’s 5-3 loss to Toronto, there’s good news and bad news to report.
First, the good news. Snake-bitten sniper Phil Kessel snapped a 10-game scoring drought with his 23rd goal of the season.
The bad news? The Penguins leaked for three goals in the final 5:30 to lose in come-from-in-front fashion.
“Obviously they needed the game a lot more than we did, so they came out hard and they got a couple of good breaks,” Kessel said. “It is what it is.”
Indeed, while the Maple Leafs needed a victory to clinch their first playoff berth since 2013, the black and gold—having wrapped up home ice for the first round of the playoffs—had little to play for. A fact punctuated by a cluster of lineup changes.
Hoping to give some of his troops a much-needed breather in advance of back-to-back games and the upcoming playoffs, Mike Sullivan rested regulars Nick Bonino, Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust, along with super-sub Chad Ruhwedel.
The Pens’ skipper plugged the gaps with Cameron Gaunce, Tom Sestito, Mark Streit and Baby Pens call-ups Kevin Porter and Dominik Simon.
Sad to say, it showed. Although they led for a good portion of the game thanks to goals by Kessel, Sidney Crosby and first-year wonder Jake Guentzel, the Pens mustered a paltry 18 shots on goal in support of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, making his first appearance between the pipes following a 10-day layoff.
Still, our boys almost carried the day, holding a 3-2 lead until the 14:30 mark of the third period. In an ironic twist of fate, former first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen—shipped north of the border in the Kessel deal—ignited the Leafs’ rally.
Scarcely a minute after the locals killed a cross-checking penalty to Streit, Toronto mega-rookie Auston Matthews darted behind the Pens’ net and fed Matt Hunwick to the side of the cage. With Fleury hugging the post, Hunwick dished a Crosby-esque pass through the slot to Kapanen, who’d slipped below the right circle and escaped the detection of veteran Matt Cullen. The 20-year-old winger ripped the puck home for his first NHL goal.
“Obviously it was something special,” Kapanen said. “Can’t be a better time to score than to tie it up against your old club. It feels pretty good.”
Kapanen’s timely tally stole the thunder from Kessel, who’d beaten Toronto starter Frederik Andersen with a rapier-like shot to the stick side six minutes into the contest. A marker that brought a broad smile to the face of the expatriate Leaf, to say nothing of some emotional relief.
“I think you always smile when you score a goal, don’t you?” quipped the affable winger.
Too bad the Leafs had to go and spoil things. With a shade under three minutes remaining and Nazem Kadri providing a perfect screen in front, Connor Brown deflected Jake Gardiner’s shot from the point into the upper part of the net. Fleury had no chance.
Matthews tacked on an empty-netter in the waning seconds with a rocket from center ice for his 40th goal of the season, moving him into a tie for second place behind Crosby in the race for the Maurice Richard Trophy and eclipsing Sid’s rookie mark of 39 goals.
Not the ending Pens fans would’ve hoped for.
The Penguins outhit Toronto, 32-13. The Leafs won 54 percent of the draws.
Crosby’s goal—his 44th of the season—virtually assured him of the Richard Trophy. He’s four goals up on his nearest competition with one game to play. Sid trails Edmonton’s Connor McDavid by nine points in the race for the scoring title.
With five goals in his past five games, Guentzel’s been on fire since returning from a concussion on March 31. Jake leads all NHL rookies with an average of 3.12 points per 60 minutes. His points per game average (0.83) ranks third among first-year pros, behind Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine.
Andersen left the game two minutes into the second period after colliding with Sestito in the crease. Although the big Pens winger received an interference penalty, the contact appeared to be unintentional. Curtis McElhinney finished the game in net to earn the victory for Toronto.
Fleury made 25 saves for the Penguins.