Thoughts, musings and observations from the Penguins' Tuesday morning skate before hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs…
The Maple Leaf
The Penguins-Maple Leafs matchup will feature a lot of high-end skill in the form of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Michael Nylander and more.
Both teams like to play an up-tempo style and thrive offensively (Toronto is third in the NHL with 3.5 goals per game, while Pittsburgh is seventh at 3.3). Don't be surprised if this game turns into a tennis match of back-and-forth chances.
"They're a really good team that can score goals," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We're going to have to manage the puck, that's a real important aspect of it. We'll have to bring a solid game away from the puck. Our positioning, our attention to detail is going to have to be there. We're going to have to defend in numbers. And they're going to have to defend us. We have guys that can score, too."
One of those Penguins that can score is captain Sidney Crosby, who has 27 goals and 59 points in 43 career games against Toronto. Crosby feels the best way to neutralize the Maple Leafs' offense is to possess the puck.
"You've got to be able to play in their end. If not, it's going to be a long night," Crosby said. "As soon as they possess the puck, they're going to be able to generate chances. For us, our best way of defending is just holding onto the puck and trying to play in their end."
One player in particular the Penguins will key in on is Matthews, who has 42 goals on the season and is arguably the deadliest goal scorer in the league.
"A guy like Auston Matthews who is that dangerous with his shot, you have to make sure you don't give him too much time and space," Letang said. "His release is just out of this world. It's so fast, it's so precise. And he has a flair to know where to be on the ice and always be in a good position to be a threat. And he has a big frame, so he's tough to defend also."
On Dec. 4 the Penguins were in fifth place in the Metro Division with 32 points, trailing Washington, NY Islanders, Philadelphia and Carolina. Since then, Pittsburgh has gone 22-6-2 and now is in second place with 78 points, just one shy of top-spotted Washington.
"I think you follow them. When it's this tight, you have to," Crosby said of the standings. "I think the urgency and understanding where you're at, that's important, especially this time of year. All the points matter. If you need any extra motivation, knowing that is a good thing."
Despite the team's climb, Sullivan said that they aren't following the standings closely, but do understand the importance of playoff positioning.
"We aren't paying a whole lot of attention to it right now. There's a lot of hockey to be played," Sullivan said. "We're just trying to win the game right in front of us.
"I'm not going to stand here and say we're oblivious to the standings. We understand the opportunity that's in front of us and that should get us all excited. And it does."
Letang echoed his coach's sentiment.
"I don't pay attention, I'm not going to lie," Letang said with a laugh. "I'm going game-by-game. I think our mentality is just one game at a time and try to be the best team we can be on the ice."
The Penguins lost forward Zach Aston-Reese to a lower-body injury in Sunday's 5-1 win against Detroit. He is out week-to-week.
The Penguins do appear to be at least getting one forward back from injury. Dominik Kahun, who missed the last eight games with a concussion, will be a game-time decision tonight.
"I feel pretty good," Kahun said after the morning skate. "I hope I can play. We'll see what happens."
Kahun has been skating with the team in a no-contact capacity, but was able to do contact with team's skills coach Ty Hennes. He worked on the fourth line during morning skate line rushes.
The Penguins used the following workflow at their morning skate…
The Penguins held a rare morning skate, but it was due to the team having a full day off on Monday.
"We had a team day off yesterday so it warrants a morning skate today," Sullivan said. "My experience of coaching guys after a day off is they want to get on the ice, they want to feel the puck, they want to get their heart rates up a little bit. That's all part of it.
"We just try to manage the workload with what we do out there."