TORONTO - Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston called it a character win.
Star centre Evgeni Malkin took exception to a Dion Phaneuf hit on Patric Hornqvist late in the game and went after the Toronto captain. His Penguins teammates killed off the ensuing power play when Malkin got the extra minor and backup goalie Thomas Greiss made some key saves in a 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs.
Coming off the heels of a 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday that snapped a seven-game win streak, it was an impressive bounce back for the Pens.
Malkin got props from his teammates for standing up for his fallen linemate. Phaneuf had shrugged Hornqvist off like he was an annoying insect, sending him flying at the boards.
Malkin made a beeline for Phaneuf.
"Unreal. It shows how tight this team is ? when you have one of your top players jumping in after that kind of hit," said winger Pascal Dupuis, who scored both Penguins goals after being restored to a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
"You've got to stick up for one another."
Dupuis disagreed with Malkin getting four minutes to Phaneuf's two. But Crosby just saw the incident as motivation.
"When a guy sticks up for a teammate like that, you want to find a way to kill off that penalty." said the Pens captain. "Especially given the situation of the game. So good on him for sticking up for a teammate. We stick together. And then we got a huge (penalty) kill there to finish the game."
Phaneuf was not surprised at the response, even at a star like Malkin getting physical.
"When a guy comes in like that, he's sticking up for his teammate. So you expect that.
"He's a pretty big guy, so I think he can handle himself," the Leafs defenceman added.
Johnston's decision to reunite Dupuis with Crosby and Kunitz paid immediate dividends. The coach said he did not expect such a bump but knew the three have chemistry.
"Putting them back together was good, but I also though Gino (Malkin) had a great game tonight," Johnston said. "I thought Hornqvist, Gino and (Nick) Spaling were a real good line for us. They had some chances. They created, they were dangerous.
"And that's what we need. We need depth in our lineup. (Centre Brandon) Sutter's been just a rock every night for us."
Sutter needed stitches after being cut on the ear by the puck in the third period. Johnston said most of the blow was taken by his helmet.
"I think he should be fine, but again we'll see."
Pittsburgh (11-3-1) has now won eight of its last nine. The Penguins killed off 25 straight penalties during the seven games they won prior to New York, where the penalty killers were finally beaten. They bounced back, however, by killing off all six Leaf power-play chances.
The Toronto game marked the end of a season-long five-game road trip for the Pens.
Pittsburgh has now won four straight and six of the last seven against Toronto. The Penguins disposed of the Leafs 5-2 when they met Oct. 11 in its second game of the season.
Crosby, who came into the game leading the league in scoring, upped his points total to 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) with a beautiful pass from the boards to Dupuis. He has played provider of late with no goals and 11 assists in his last seven games.
The loss in New York marked just the fourth time this season Crosby had been held off the scoresheet. He has at least one point in 11 of Pittsburgh's 15 games with seven multi-point contests.
NOTES: Pens defenceman Simon Depres played in his 100th NHL game.
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