The Penguins’ lineup for Monday’s game was more Wilkes-Barre/Scranton than Pittsburgh with all of the injuries and suspensions the team is dealing with. And they lost yet another player in the contest, as forward Jayson Megna left a few minutes into the third period after colliding with Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier. He has a lower-body injury and is unlikely to play Wednesday in New York, per Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma.
But they came up with a big 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third and final meeting between the teams this season on Monday at CONSOL Energy Center.
Chris Conner opened the scoring 41 seconds into the game, Sidney Crosby scored the game-winner in the third period and Brandon Sutter iced the victory with a shorthanded empty-netter. Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves to improve his home record this season to 13-2.
Compared to the last game between these teams, a 6-5 shootout win for Pittsburgh, this one was much tighter. It was also a lot more physical, as there was no love lost on that ice tonight. The game got rough at times, with big hits, two fights (Toronto’s Troy Bodie was involved in both), a lot of scrums and a lot of penalties, including a few for roughing and a few for unsportsmanlike conduct.
"A few things were let go early on. It escalates. It was a tight game,” Crosby said. “They were letting guys play. That's probably part of the reason for it. A couple big hits. Guys want to respond and stick up for their teammates. A couple fights were hard to explain. It's pretty rare to see one guy fighting twice in one game. That's the way it is, third meeting. It was pretty intense."
“MAATTA WAS OUR BEST DEFENSEMAN TONIGHT”
The group of defensemen the Pens dressed for tonight’s game is inexperienced on paper, but they didn’t play that way.
“I didn't really feel like we were young out there,” said the youngest of them all, 19-year-old rookie Olli Maatta. “We made some good plays, I felt we looked like we had more games than we actually do under the belt (laughs).”
Maatta may be the youngest of the group, but he’s played in every single one of the Pens’ games this season along with Matt Niskanen. And he had the best, most consistent game of them all anchoring the first pairing with the veteran defenseman.
Maatta was tremendous from the start, making those little plays that are hugely important (getting stick-on-puck to prevent a Leaf from shooting; using his body to box out while making a clear; etc.) while getting the toughest matchup situations and logging the most shorthanded minutes on the team.
"Olli Maatta, one of the veterans of the group, was our best defenseman tonight,” Bylsma said.
Maatta’s responsibility has continued to increase every game, topping his career-high in ice time night after night, and he’s been handling it virtually flawlessly.
“You obviously don't want to lose your four D-men, but it's been an experience,” he said. “It's an opportunity to step up and I feel I've done a good job. All of us are stepping up our games.
“You can't really think too much. You just got to play your game. You can't start thinking oh, the whole team relies on us. They don't. It's a five-man game, plus ‘Flower’ out there. You've got to play with five guys and with the whole team.”
The line of Conner, Sutter and Joe Vitale was Pittsburgh’s most effective from their first shift of the game, as they combined to open the scoring just 41 seconds in.
What makes them so successful is the way Conner and Vitale, two of – if not the – fastest Penguins on the roster – use their speed to make plays. It starts with them getting in quick on the forecheck and establishing a cycle. Once they have possession in the offensive zone, they keep their legs moving and aren’t afraid to go to the hard areas and buzz the net despite taking a beating. That tenacity is a big reason they put the puck past Bernier.
Conner and Vitale are proving to be perfect complements for Sutter, who has the vision and smarts to read off those two when they come in like a wrecking ball.
"’Consy’ and I, (speed) is the biggest attributes to how we play individually,” said Vitale, who assisted on Conner’s goal to give him helpers in three straight games – a career high for the winger. “And ‘Suttsy’ is doing a great job working with that. Consy and me are feeding off each other, putting pucks in the right spots and getting to them first. It's been good."
With father and former Penguin Ulf Samulesson watching closely in the stands, defenseman Philip Samuelsson logged a steady 15:43 minutes in his NHL debut.
“It is pretty surreal,” Samuelsson said on playing his first game. “Obviously, to have my family at the game. It was a blast. I had a lot of fun.”
The Samulesson’s became the fifth father-son pair to suit up for the Penguins.
The tall, stay-at-home defenseman was paired with former WBS teammate Simon Despres for most of the night, a duo crafted by Bylsma to make sure Samuelsson would become comfortable as quickly as possible.
“I think I just kind of know what he (Despres) is going to do,” Samuelsson added. “We play pretty well together.”
Samuelsson also logged just under a minute on the penalty-killing unit, something Bylsma said will be an asset for the Swedish-born defenseman moving forward.
“It is good to have that first one under my belt,” Samuelsson said. “I think if it progresses from here, hopefully I will get more confidence making plays. For my first game, I thought it was pretty good.”
Author: Michelle Crechiolo