(Photo credit: Michael Miller)
After losing their last four games Leafs fans were fearing the worst as they welcomed the Penguins to Air Canada Centre. Crosby and his team had won their last three games and have been excellent in 2018 so far winning 20 of their 27 games.
Toronto have been without Auston Matthews for six games now and have struggled without their star centerman. Thought their record has been 8-5-2 when Matthews has been injured - they have looked far worse without him on the ice.
The Penguins last night dominated the Marner-Nylander-Hyman line but the overall depth of Toronto’s four lines meant they could keep themselves in the game. Tomas Plekanec has proved to be a steady addition meaning that Toronto can match any line teams throw at them.
If Toronto can pick up vital points without their franchise player that proves the strength in depth that this team has. Pittsburgh are one of the main contenders for the Stanley Cup and Toronto toppled them without their best player.
Kadri stepping up
Nazem Kadri was sent out by Mike Babcock to counter the Sidney Crosby line and he did much more than shut them down. Two goals for Kadri made it 26 for the season and proved that he is one of the best two-way center’s in the league.
Kadri will be vital to the Leafs if they play the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup as his two-way play will be needed to counteract Patrice Bergeron - the best two-way center in the league.
Defence making a difference
Who were Toronto’s most used defenceman last night? Ron Hainsey and Roman Polak. Hainsey played over 25 minutes and Polak played over 23. The two veterans were excellent all night and helped to stifle the Penguins best players time after time.
More notable than that was how good they were on the penalty kill. Hainsey played a whopping 5:43 minutes of PK time and Polak saw 4:52. Toronto killed off all three penalties given against them which was vital in their search for victory - especially since Pittsburgh have the best power play percentage in the league (26%).
Freddie Andersen has probably been the Leafs MVP this season, playing the most minutes of any NHL goaltending and being brick-wall like in his play. The Danish netminder has played 57 games this season and won 33 of them while posted a solid .918 save percentage.
Last night Andersen proved just how good he can be as he kept the Penguins at bay until the third period. He bailed out his team on numerous occasions and saved 35 of 37 shots. The Leafs have a bona fide number one goaltender in Andersen and he will be vital for them for the playoffs.
It will be interesting to see if Andersen gets some rest down the stretch as the Leafs are all but confirmed to be in the post-season.
Record against the league’s best
The Leafs win against Pittsburgh made their seasonal record against the current top 10 teams in the NHL 12-6-1. That will be very important come playoff time as the Leafs prove that they are more than a match for any team in the NHL.
While it may be concerning that they have dropped vital points against the lower positioned sides in the league like Arizona, Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit - they have made up for that with their form against the league's best.
The final thing that proves the Leafs are contenders is their immaculate home form over the last few months. The victory over Pittsburgh was the teams tenth in a row at Air Canada Centre matching a record dating all the way back to the 1950’s.
The Leafs are now sitting with a 23-8-2 record at home and their form at the ACC will need to be good if they have any aspirations of having a deep playoff run this spring.