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Photo Credit: © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Despite all the panic, the Leafs were better than the Penguins this week

Aside from an a couple penalty kills that looked utterly gross on Tuesday night, I don’t think this Leafs set with the Penguins was nearly as scary as everyone was leading on. Just like you don’t want to put too much stock in last night’s strong performance in Toronto, it wasn’t wise to declare this team dead earlier in the week. But there’s no doubt people have done both.

Put simply, the Leafs had their share of breakdowns and gave up the special teams tap-ins in the opener of this home-and-home with the Penguins, but in terms of territory I never saw them get run out of the rink like a lot of hockey pundits felt they did. They also couldn’t get a save to stop the bleeding. All over the airwaves these last couple days people have been chucking around words like “embarrassment” and dropping quotes like “The Leafs learned a lesson from a real contender” as if Toronto didn’t deserve to share the same ice. Sure, the Penguins are one of the stronger teams in the league, but it shouldn’t ever feel like this Leafs team should fear an opponent or look at a stretch of the schedule as particularly daunting.

Then we got to last night, where I’d argue the Leafs put it to the Penguins more than the flip-side on Tuesday. Toronto scored a lone powerplay goal but the rest of their offense came at 5v5, where they pretty much controlled the game wire to wire. Special teams aside on Tuesday, things weren’t all that lopsided. It wasn’t as if Toronto got caved in during the run of play at evens, and in the second game it was quite the opposite, they funneled attempts to the dangerous areas of the ice at a major clip. Everything was crisp and it never felt they were in any danger at all.

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Here’s how the heat maps look for both games, at even strength.

Now I get it, leads, score effects and all that – we’re not digging too deep here. But this isn’t an argument about whether the Leafs are a better team right now than the Penguins. They have their work to do still, no question. But both games had each team build up big leads and the overall look at these maps of attempts had the Leafs doing just fine in the run of play, if not dominant for decent stretches. The way people panicked, you’d swear they couldn’t get out of their zone at all on Tuesday. It was never really the case, and if anything looked more like that from a Pittsburgh perspective in the second game. [The Buffalo game was a worse look for Toronto, in my opinion.]

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Again, I’m not trying to build the Leafs up too much here – they have to fight for every point down the stretch, and they’ve had some bizarre showings lately. We all know that. And this is a quick and relatively simplistic look at how this two-game set shook out. But the way these two teams were being talked about on Wednesday following game one, it was as if they were supposed to be in different leagues; The Leafs were pretenders and the Penguins, with all their playoff experience, were showing them how the real contenders play. Once it was all settled, I’d say the Leafs came out of this pair of games looking just fine, if not generally better than their opponent…at least for this week.