With one month remaining in the regular season, teams are starting to prepare themselves for the postseason, assuming they get there. With the Pittsburgh Penguins now leading their division (after a mediocre first half of the season) and the Toronto Maple Leafs slipping to third, a contest between these two playoff hopefuls should be a high energy event. The Leafs are trying to pull together a winning recipe while superstar Austen Matthews is on the shelf and the Penguins are trying to find the magic that brought them a Stanley Cup last season.
Here’s everything you need to know about Saturday’s Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs game at Air Canada Centre.
After spending the majority of the season outside the playoff bubble, the Penguins became the top team in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-2 victory over their division rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, on Wednesday night. The Pens are 7-3-0 in their last ten games and are on a three-game winning streak.
The beauty of the Penguins’ roster is that if Sidney Crosby isn’t tearing up the league (though he scored his 1,100 career point against the Flyers), they have another superstar to rely on, Evgeni Malkin. Malkin ranks second in the league with 84 points (behind Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov). He’s also tied with Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine for second in the league with 38 goals (behind Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin).
With the newly acquired Derick Brassard (from the Ottawa Senators) on the roster, the Pens have a formidable lineup at centre, evidenced by their recent surge and a dominant 224 goals for (ranked 3rd). They also have a solid record at PPG Paints Arena, 25-8-1, though have not fared so well on the road with a 14-17-3 record. However, they have only recorded two (high-scoring) losses in their last six road games, dating back to a Feb. 11 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues.
After two days off, the Pens visit the Leafs in the first of back-to-back contests that close at home on Sunday against the Dallas Stars.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Despite acquiring former nemesis Tomas Plekanec (from the Montreal Canadiens) at the trade deadline, the Leafs have had a difficult time without their top centre, Austen Matthews, who’s out with a separated shoulder. He’s been skating with his teammates but in a red no-contact jersey, signalling that the chances are slim that he’ll be in the lineup against the Penguins on Saturday.
However, despite their recent struggles, a 5-3-2 record in their last ten games and a two-game losing streak including an embarrassing 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres (the worst team in the league) on March 7, the Leafs have plenty to be confident about.
They have a 14 point cushion on a playoff spot, sitting comfortably in third place in the Atlantic Division with the Florida Panthers the only team to come close and they are two points outside the wild-card berths. The Leafs also have an equally dominant 22-8-2 record at ACC and an impressive 17-14-5 record on the road.
The Leafs have four days off leading up to the Penguins contest to regroup from the Sabres loss. For better or worse, they have another three-day break after Saturday’s game and face the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, Mar. 14 before another bout with the Sabres a night later at KeyBank Center.
In three games this season, the Leafs have a 2-1 series edge over the Penguins. However, with 8 goals for and 8 against, the teams are evenly matched, though they have a slight 115-101 edge in shots.
With both teams in playoff prep-mode, expect them to go after the two points while cautiously trying to avoid injury. This is the final matchup of the season between the clubs, though there is a chance they meet in an elimination series, meaning this game will set the tone for the future.