TORONTO, Ontario — On Friday afternoon, as Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson reflected on the biggest reasons behind the club’s recent losing skid, he identified three areas of emphasis.
Not enough blocked shots. Not enough pucks on net. And the third?
“We get ourselves into trouble when we play a lot of east-west,” Matheson said. “[This team] was built on speed. When we’re slowing things down by going east-west or coming out of our zone and circling back or going D-to-D, back to D, that’s not our game. Our game it to get it up to our forwards with speed, join the rush and get it going north so we can put teams on their heels.”
During the Penguins’ 2-0 victory over the Maple Leafs on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena, Matheson’s quote proved prophetic.
Actually, it was more than that. Matheson more or less described exactly how the Penguins scored both of their first-period goals, with crisp breakout passes and a quick-strike transition attack.
Less than six minutes into the game, a tape-to-tape pass from Brian Dumoulin found Bryan Rust in the neutral zone in stride. The speedy right winger then made a cheeky pass over the blue line to help Jake Guentzel gain the offensive zone. Then, as Guentzel skated into the slot, he looked in Sidney Crosby’s direction. But when Auston Matthews came over to take away the pass, Guentzel buried the back-hander. It marked Guentzel’s fourth consecutive game with a goal and his seventh tally of the season.
Later in the first period, Jeff Carter netted his fourth goal of the season on a play where that speed and quick-strike offense was even more on display. From his defensive zone, Matheson himself zipped a breakout pass diagonally toward center ice. Former Leaf Kasperi Kapanen one-touched the puck from the red line to send it in deep. Jason Zucker won a footrace and then fed the puck into the slot, where Carter was all alone with nothing but an empty net staring at him.
Meanwhile, that offensive output was more than enough for goalie Tristan Jarry, who posted his second consecutive shutout. He stopped 26 shots to outduel Toronto goalie Jack Campbell, who entered Saturday night leading the NHL in goals-against average (1.63) and save percentage (.944) through 15 outings.
Jarry’s performance was solid on its own — and better in context. The Penguins’ No. 1 netminder posted his two worst games of the season, at least in terms of save percentage, back-to-back. He allowed six goals and posted a .813 save percentage on Sunday in Washington and followed it with two goals allowed on 19 shots and a .895 save percentage on Tuesday against Buffalo.
Jarry said that he took the Washington outing “personally” and wanted to prove something. He sure has the last two games, recording back-to-back shutouts.
While the score was lopsided, the win was not without its nervous moments. A Leafs power play that has scored 10 goals in the last 11 games got 1:49 of 5-on-3 time with 5:02 left and the Penguins up 2-0. Brock McGinn came up with a critical shot block to help snuff out the power play and seal the game.
The Penguins and Maple Leafs entered the game on largely opposite trajectories. Toronto was one of the NHL’s hottest teams, winning 10 of its last 11 before Saturday. Meanwhile, the Penguins weathered significant COVID-19 absences over the last two-plus weeks and were not playing the best hockey. They had lost eight of 10 before finally snapping the skid on Tuesday in Montreal with a dominant 6-0 win that might have been their most-complete performance of the season.
Pittsburgh (7-6-4) has now won back-to-back games for the first time this season. The three-game Canadian swing concludes on Monday in Winnipeg.©2021 PG Publishing Co. Visit at post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.