January 23 2013 11:57AM
The Pittsburgh Tribune woke us up this morning, apparently, to tell us that Hockey's Mecca is no longer any of the towns connected by the traffic-infested Southern Ontario freeways converging unto the region professional hockey grew out of, once upon a time.
For those of us who grew up with the sport, we also grew up with tomes on our coffee tables outlining the history of the game. Though the pictures in those books were black and white, the striping patterns and logos on the uniforms were familiar. The simple and distinct patterns remain unchanged since the Original Six era began in 1942.
In the Original Six era, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each won the Stanley Cup 10 times. No other team came close. There are no two cities hosting professional hockey that can even begin to claim similar history or importance is the establishment of the modern NHL.
Except, evidently, Pittsburgh, where the Maple Leafs play tonight.
Imagine when the NHL finally, formally returns to Pittsburgh on this fittingly wintry Wednesday night, with the Penguins playing host to the Maple Leafs amid the game‘s two brightest stars, 18,387 of its most dedicated fans and about a half-million more near local TV sets.
If you ask me, it‘ll look like hockey‘s coming home.
Not just our home.
The sport‘s new home.
See, with all due respect to our Ontarian visitors in town, I dare say it‘s now plenty safe to posit that this golden little triangle, this most fortunate magnet to four of the greatest talents in NHL history … this is hockey‘s new Mecca.
1.1 million viewers in the Sportsnet Ontario region watched the Leafs' home opener against the Buffalo Sabres, a number nearly four times the entire population of Pittsburgh.
For years, the Penguins were as bad as the Leafs were last season. They got to select, between 2003 and 2006, either first or second in the draft. They landed among those players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and their success as the two best players in the world didn't turn in Pittsburgh into a hockey paradise. What it really did was revitalize local interest in the franchise and prevented it from moving to Kansas City, after a deal was reached to build the new Consol Energy Center.
The old Mellon Arena? It's a pile of uncleared rubble, or at least it was when I was in Pittsburgh, an unsightly mess of dirt across the street from the new arena. Meanwhile, in Toronto, rather than tearing down Maple Leaf Gardens, Ryerson University opted to keep its iconic facade on the north side of Carlton Street while revitalizing the interior.
Look, don‘t misunderstand. The Toronto metro area is three times our size, and its passion for pucks is unrivaled. The Maple Leafs are the NHL‘s most lucrative franchise and, fact is, the league could put a second franchise there and it would be the second-most lucrative.
But sorry, no road to Mecca can have four decades of failure and Phil Kessel at the other end.
There has to be a marquee.
There has to be some magic.
I hate to sound like Don Cherry here, but I count three players from Southern Ontario on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dustin Jeffrey from Sarnia, Matt Cooke from Belleville, and James Neal from Whitby. I count no Penguins players from Western Pennsylvania.
Much was written last year when Cherry ripped into the Leafs for not having an Ontario-born player on the team and instead having too many "American college kids". While Nazem Kadri from London is the only Southern Ontarian on the roster (UPDATE - it's been pointed out Mike Kostka is from Etobicoke), none of the "American college kids" on the Leafs' roster are from Western Pennsylvania.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have continued to grow, despite the four Cup-less decades. Toronto continues to pump out elite hockey players on a yearly basis. At the recent draft in Pittsburgh, five players were selected in the first round out of Southern Ontario, zero from Western Pennsylvania. From a developmental standpoint, 11 were drafted out of the Ontario Hockey League, zero were drafted out of leagues based in Western Pennsylvania.
Kovacevic's only argument is: "We were really shitty at the right time, and now we have some good players."
Puck Drop: 7 PM EST
In Kovacevic's defence, the Pittsburgh Penguins do have some very good players. They're loaded down the middle and on defence, the most important places to be loaded at. Via the Daily Faceoff, here is what the Leafs' can expect:
Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Pascal Dupuis
Eric Tangradi - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Matt Cooke - Brandon Sutter - Tyler Kennedy
Tanner Glass - Craig Adams - Dustin Jeffrey
Matt Niskanen - Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik - Paul Martin
Deryk Engelland - Simon Despres
The team seems rather weak at the wing position, save for James Neal, who scored 40 goals last season and already has three this campaign. That aside, their proficiency at centre ice gives them a four line deep lineup that makes them difficult to match up against, particularly on the road. Randy Carlyle has unveiled some shiny new line combinations tonight that could balance out the Leafs' lines partly:
Leaf lines at morning skate: MacArthur-Bozak-Kessel; JVR-Grabo-Kulemin; Lupul-Kadri-Komarov— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 23, 2013
Who gets who? Sutter will presumably face off against Toronto's new top line of Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. Randy Carlyle has the option of using the quick change to get Mikhail Grabovski out against either the Crosby line or the Malkin line, and I'm willing to bet that Dan Bylsma won't be too concerned about which one it is, because it would leave the other unit to tear up a new Nazem Kadri-Leo Komarov-Joffrey Lupul unit.
We can't look to the past to see how the Leafs matched up in these games against Pittsburgh last season, because they had an entirely different roster two seasons ago, and never faced off against Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh last year, coming through town both times when he was injured. Bylsma seemed content to let Malkin face-off against the Leafs' toughs. You can tell from the H2H matchup charts that Malkin was against Grabovski for 10 of his 19 minutes in the first game (Ron Wilson coached) and 14 of 17 minutes in the second game (Carlyle coached).
Malkin also spent time against the top defensive pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson. Carlyle has been switching his pairings around throughout the year. Phaneuf has played with Mike Kostka primarily to start the year, and in his third NHL game, will Kostka be up to the challenge of seeing 10 or more minutes against Malkin?
I'll say this: unless Carlyle can offensively shelter the piss out of the Kadri line, they'll get steamrollered. I expect a lot of double-shifting out of Nik Kulemin who should see some face-offs alongside Jay McClement. It seems like a team the Leafs are potentially suited to match up against, until you forget about Crosby.
Here are some WOWY splits from Mikhail Grabovski versus Evgeni Malkin from the last two seasons, via Hockey Analysis:
|71 vs. 84||49:45||17.29||18.09|
|71 vs. not-84||1663:49||22.20||16.90|
It's a small sample, but Grabovski has won his match ups against Malkin since 2010. It's a match up the Leafs can conceivably win.
Toronto played Pittsburgh tough twice at Consol last season (they best game they played all year was that 5-4 shootout loss to the Penguins, they came back and won 1-0 the next night in a thriller).
Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, the Penguins' new No. 1 shutdown unit, is likely to take the defensive load. Kris Letang and Matt Niskanen will probably play with Crosby. The Leafs' last line of defence tonight is James Reimer, getting his first NHL game action since March 23.
- The Hockey Writers: Analyzing Brooks Orpik and the Penguins' new shutdown pair [Mike Colligan, who is a guy you should be reading]
- Gretzky for President, or how Sportsnet concocted a rumour [Pension Plan Puppets]
- The Great Potential Mistake [The Faceoff Circle]
- Jake Gardiner tagging along for the trip [National Post]
- Three questions with a Penguins blogger [Pension Plan Puppets]