Game Preview #50 - Penguins vs Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs (25-19-5) will start their post all-star playoff push tonight as they begin a home and home series with the Pittsburgh Penguins (28-17-4). The Penguins went into the break as the NHL's hottest team running off seven straight wins. Due mostly to the strong play of Evgeny Malkin (9 goals 4 assists +11), James Neal (6 goals 5 assists +10) and Chris Kunitz (1 goal 5 assists +7), the Pens have solidified their post season chances. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was in between the pipes for that entire winning streak. That top line as well as Fleury will look to continue their red-hot streak against the Leafs tonight.
The Leafs are slowly beginning to return to full strength as injured players Colby Armstrong, John-Michael Liles and Darryl Boyce have all taken part in the last two full practices. However Leafs coach Ron Wilson has confirmed that the Leafs will ice the same lineup that saw them sweep the New York Islanders previous to the break. With only five points separating these two teams in the standings, this back to back is a prime opportunity for the blue and white to gain some ground on an Eastern Conference rival.
Tonight's game is the first of a final 33 game stretch that will see the Leafs either sink or swim. It is imperative that they get off to a good start in these two contests against the Penguins. Jonas Gustavsson has stolen the net from James Reimer and depending on his performance tonight may play both of these critical games. Mikhail Grabovski was recently named the NHL's first star of the week, and has seemingly rediscovered some chemistry with Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin.
Special teams may be the difference in this game. While the Leafs have shored up the penalty killing by not allowing a goal against so far in January, they have gone a terrible 2 for their last 26 on the power play. Hopefully the Leafs can right that ship, as the PP is a crucial weapon for the speedy Leafs.
A couple of times this season the Leafs have come out flat after long layoffs/ This cannot happen against the Penguins in their own barn or the buds may find themselves out of the game in the first 20 minutes.
Lupul - Bozak - Kessel
Kulemin - Grabovski - MacArthur
Kadri - Connolly - Lombardi
Brown - Steckel - Crabb
Phaneuf - Schenn
Gunnarsson - Komisarek
Gardiner - Franson
Kunitz - Malkin - Neal
Dupuis - Jeffrey - Kennedy
Sullivan - Park - Cooke
Macintyre - Vitale - Adams
Letang - Orpick
Michalek - Martin
Niskannen - Engelland
Players to Watch
Leafs: Dion Phaneuf - On the two year anniversary of his arrival to the Leafs, Captain Dion will need to lead the charge for the young and impressionable buds. It is important the Phaneuf leads by example as the stretch drive begins tonight.
Penguins: Kris Letang: Perhaps the Norris trophy this season favourite prior to his concussion, the deceptively strong and effective Letang is the straw that stirs the drink in Pittsburgh. Yes Malkin, Fleury and Neal are great players, but in the absence of Sidney Crosby Letang has emerged as the Penguins interim leader.
Game Time: 7:00 at the Consol Energy Centre. TV - TSN. Radio - AM640.