The Maple Leafs roll into Pittsburgh tonight with both teams playing the second half of a back to back with travel and coming off losses on Friday night. Toronto played at home, while Pittsburgh played in New Jersey, so both are on a relatively level playing field.
Here are five things to watch for:
1) Kaskisuo Debut
The first NHL start for Kasimir Kaskisuo will come this evening in Pittsburgh. The Leafs back-up spot seems to be his for a while, as Michael Hutchinson proved he couldn’t handle the load. After a few seasons with the Marlies, Kaskisuo is off to a great start, with a 6-1-1 record and a .928 SV%.
Considering the man he’s replacing, the bar is not particularly high at this juncture.
Kaskisuo makes his debut on Hockey Night in Canada against a tired Penguins team. Granted, the Leafs are playing on a back to back as well, but that should level the playing field a little bit. As for expectations, Kaskisuo has been known to let in stinkers. However, he can make key saves at critical times, something the Leafs have needed from their backup.
For Kaskisuo’s sake, let’s hope his teammates start on time and don’t give up ten grade-A scoring chances in the first seven minutes of the game. There aren’t a ton of options left for the backup position, so expect Kaskisuo to get a good look with the Leafs.
2) Malkin “Will Be Fire”
The Leafs get lucky, and only have to face one of the Penguins’ two-headed monster, as Crosby is out after hernia surgery. When asked about how he will cope with Crosby’s absence, Malkin said, “I will be fire.”
The man isn’t wrong…he’s got a history of being absolutely superb when Crosby isn’t in the lineup. Against Toronto, Malkin has 62 (!) points in 37 games…a casual 1.68 points per game.
If the Leafs hope to leave Pittsburgh with two points, they need to keep Malkin at bay. That is going to require a focused defensive performance, one without egregious mental lapses on a regular basis. This is especially true on the power play, as Malkin has 12 goals against the Leafs on the power play.
Against Toronto, Crosby has 59 points in 43 games. The Leafs should be counting their lucky stars he’s not playing because they haven’t had much success keeping either of the Pittsburgh stars off of the scoresheet.
3) Forward Depth
With Alex Kerfoot being out indefinitely, the Leafs centre depth is in for a big test.
Much has been made about Matthews’ defensive warts, and that really leaves Toronto with one centre capable of dealing with Malkin: John Tavares. That is the most likely matchup, as it is unlikely to expect Matthews, Spezza or Gauthier to handle a Malkin matchup.
This will mean Matthews likely sees a ton of Bjugstad and McCann. If the Leafs are going to have any success, Matthews will need to have an impactful game. With Pittsburgh missing Crosby and Toronto missing Kerfoot, both teams are down a centre (Pittsburgh missing the better one).
As for the non-superstars, this will be a battle of who can have a positive impact on the game. Toronto will look for contributions from Kapanen, Spezza, Hyman – while the Penguins will look to Kahun, Rust and Simon. In these games, it is inevitably the depth players that make the difference. If the stars wash each other out, Toronto should have the advantage with skill throughout the lineup.
4) Defining Road Trip of the Season
The Leafs are in a rut right now, and they need to get results. While they’ve played well for large portions of the last few games, a team with this much talent needs to get results. With eleven of the next thirteen games on the road, this road segment has the potential to decide the Leafs season.
Win 9 of the next 13, you’re probably in a good position come April. Lose 7, you’re in some really deep trouble heading into the later part of December. With the Leafs playing in various time zones over the next few games and missing key pieces to injury, this is very much a defining point in the Leafs season.
The thing about long road trips is it forces guys to spend time together. It can really serve as a galvanizing point for a team with a lot of new players, much like the Leafs.
Guys go out on the road and spend time together watching movies and playing video games in the hotel, and cards on the plane. There isn’t the element of going home and everyone going their separate ways after a game in Toronto. This provides an opportunity for players who wouldn’t usually spend time together, to get to know each other and forge relationships.
Off-ice bonding can go a long way to improving a team’s performance on the ice, especially when it comes to trust and communication. Don’t be surprised if this road trip really galvanizes the team and positively impacts them, long-term.
5) First Goal Wins
Here’s a fun stat for you: the team that scores first in the NHL this season has a .714 Win%. So, 71% of the time, the team who scores first, wins. The Leafs have this awful habit of conceding the first goal and not starting on time.
Considering the overwhelming evidence against that being a good idea, scoring the first goal should be of paramount importance against the Penguins.
Against Pittsburgh, the Leafs will likely need to provide their rookie goaltender with some run support. They can ill afford to have a performance like the one in Chicago, where they left Hutchinson out to dry. They can start by not giving up odd-man rushes, prime scoring area chances, and allowing the Penguins to gain the zone with speed.
On the flip side, the Leafs can build upon their offensive game from last night against the Bruins. They forechecked well, created a ton of chances by getting to the middle of the ice and recovered pucks well. Matthews led the charge against the Bruins, and if he can start the game where he left off, that should bode well for the Leafs.
Puck drop is at 7 PM.