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Injury-plagued Penguins set to host Maple Leafs

by David Kalan

MAPLE LEAFS (17-14-3) at PENGUINS (23-10-1)


Last 10: Toronto 3-5-2; Pittsburgh 8-1-1

Season series: This is the last of three games between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. They split their previous matchups with the Penguins edging the Maple Leafs in a shootout, 6-5, in their most recent game on Nov. 27 at Consol Energy Center.

Big story: After a recent slump, Toronto broke out of its funk with a massive 7-3 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. As the Maple Leafs fight to stay in the Atlantic Division playoff chase, they'll try to carry over the momentum of their big win against the Pens, who are firmly entrenched atop the Metropolitan Division after winning eight of their past nine games.

Not all is well in Pittsburgh, however; the Penguins, already dealing with injuries on their blue line, will also be without Evgeni Malkin, who suffered a leg injury against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.

Team Scope:

Maple Leafs: Toronto has faced a particularly brutal stretch of games featuring one opponent after another on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders. The Maple Leafs were mired in a prolonged slump stretching back to mid-November in which Toronto didn't have a win in regulation over a span of 12 games, going 3-7-2.

Toronto finally put a stop to that stretch on Saturday against an unlikely foe, trouncing the defending Stanley Cup champs in a surprising blowout at Air Canada Centre.

"We really felt we needed a win," said Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who led the way with two goals and four assists. "We came into the game feeling like it was pretty close to a must-win for us. Things were kind of starting to snowball the other way."

Whether that win fully turned the tide for Toronto remains to be seen, but the opportunity is there. After facing the Penguins on Monday, Toronto will close out 2013 playing three of its next six games against teams not currently in playoff position.

Penguins: There might be no team in the Eastern Conference hotter than the Penguins, who, with their recent impressive stretch, have finally gotten some separation between them and the rest of the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh holds an eight-point lead over the second-place Washington Capitals and has a one-point edge over the Boston Bruins for the top spot in the conference.

All of this becomes more impressive considering Pittsburgh is currently riddled with injuries. Four of the Penguins' top defensemen are currently hurt, and Malkin, who was hurt after sliding feet-first into the boards Saturday, will be out Monday.

While Penguins coach Dan Bylsma noted Malkin was "walking around after the game," losing the team's second-leading scorer after defenseman Kris Letang was surprisingly scratched before the game is an enormous amount of talent for Pittsburgh to suddenly replace.

Pittsburgh is also without defenseman Deryk Engelland, who will have a hearing with the Department of Player Safety after a hit on Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader on Saturday.

Who's hot: Maple Leafs left wing Nikolai Kulemin has four points in his past four games. ... Penguins center Sidney Crosby has scored five goals and added five assists during his current six-game point streak.

Injury report: Malkin (leg) is day-to-day for the Penguins. Letang (lower body) and Scuderi (ankle) could return shortly after Christmas. Forward Tanner Glass (hand) is 3-5 days away, according to Bylsma. Defensemen Paul Martin (leg) and Brooks Orpik (head injury) and forwards Andrew Ebbett (ankle) and Beau Bennett (wrist) are all out. Forward James Neal is currently serving a suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Bruins forward Brad Marchand. … Maple Leafs forward Colton Orr (elbow) is questionable for Monday. Forward David Clarkson is serving the last game of a suspension for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka. Centers Tyler Bozak (oblique strain) and Dave Bolland (ankle) are both on injured reserve.

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