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Kovalev, Pens head to Toronto

by Sergei J. Feldman
PENGUINS (37-21-6) at MAPLE LEAFS (27-27-9)

TVRIS, TSN (HD), Versus (HD), FS-Pittsburgh (HD)

Last 10 — Pittsburgh 3-5-2; Toronto 5-1-4.

Season series — The Eastern Conference combatants will play for the fourth and final time this regular season. Toronto has the upper hand with two wins earlier in the year, but Pittsburgh skated away with two points just three days ago after a 6-5 shootout win.

Big story — As the Maple Leafs aim to claw back in the playoff race, the Penguins hope their injury-plagued season will begin to turn around. The recent success of the Leafs gave hope to GM Brian Burke that the squad he has can get the job done this year. As a result, Burke remained relatively quiet as the Feb. 28 NHL trade deadline came and went. Meanwhile, the Penguins will welcome back to their newly constructed lineup defenseman Paul Martin, who missed four games with an upper body injury. Like Burke, Penguins' GM Ray Shero felt confident in the team he's assembled sans Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Team scope:

Penguins — The Penguins are in the midst of a five-game road trip and have gone 1-1-0 so far, including a recent thrilling win over the Maple Leafs, their first win in five games. Whatever momentum gained from the win should carry over into this match against the same opponent, if only because the roster is beginning to come together, with Martin and Kennedy expected to return and Chris Kunitz set to follow shortly. In the win over the Leafs, center Mark Letestu returned to the lineup and collected a goal and an assist, while Dustin Jeffrey also returned and scored a goal of his own. Moreover, recently acquired Alex Kovalev—a former Penguin—scored his first goal with his old club and added a shootout winner, showcasing his unique talents, in the process.

"It brings back old memories," Kovalev said following the game. "I know I can be the same player, and I feel like I have another opportunity to be that type of player and play in the playoffs. It's exciting."

Maple Leafs — After a disappointing shootout loss to the Penguins, the Maple Leafs followed up with a 3-2 overtime loss to Atlanta, in which an early two-goal lead was eventually erased. While the Leafs have continued to escape regulation losses and accumulate at points, their margin for error is limited in a close Eastern Conference.

"We couldn't generate anything," goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said after the Thrashers loss. "We were lackadaisical."

To get back on the winning track, the Leafs will have to be everything but lackadaisical against the Penguins, who will look to split the season series and gain momentum of their own to start the month of March. Being six points behind Carolina for the eighth and final spot should trigger a hunger in the Leafs when Pittsburgh comes to town.

Who's hot Phil Kessel has earned himself eight points in his past four games to shoulder the load for the Leafs, while Kennedy, a role player, has picked up four points in his past five games to help a recently depleted Penguins lineup.

Injury report — Though expected to return soon, Chris Kunitz remains out for the Penguins, while the Leafs' Colton Orr remains out indefinitely with a concussion.

Stat pack — Toronto has the third-youngest roster in the League with 26.3 as the average age.

Puck drop — Pittsburgh has won three consecutive games at the Air Canada Centre.

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