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Pittsburgh vs. Toronto Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (27-24-5-59) at Toronto Maple Leafs (20-25-10-50)

Where: Air Canada Centre
When: Saturday February 14, 7:00 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: CBC, Hockey Night In Canada
FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428 and DirecTV 659.
*View FSN's HD Broadcast Schedule here
Season Series: Pittsburgh is 1-2-0 against the Maple Leafs this season. The Penguins dropped a 5-4 decision in Toronto two weeks ago against the Maple Leafs.



  Pens vs Leafs 1/31
Clear the Crease: The Maple Leafs have fired 31.5 shots per game this season, eighth most in the NHL. Toronto loves to shoot the puck and that will lead to a lot of rebounds. The Penguins must be prepared to clear away those rebounds and limit Toronto’s second opportunities. Pittsburgh struggled in this area the last time it visited Air Canada Centre and the result was a loss.

Test the Goalies:
Toronto’s goaltending tandem have struggled mightily this season. Both Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph are off to sub-par starts. Toskala has a 3.41 goals against average and a .882 save percentage. Joseph has won only one game this season (1-6-1), while compiling a 3.81 GAA and .854 save percentage. Pittsburgh should exploit Toronto’s current goaltending issue to its advantage. 
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project. With eight players 25 years old or younger, general manager Cliff Fletcher and head coach Ron Wilson are not hiding the fact that it may be a couple years before this team becomes an NHL contender. The team has been on the decline, missing the playoffs the last three seasons, which is the longest postseason drought for Toronto in 80 years. Fletcher rejoined the Leafs in January and hired Wilson to oversee the turnaround of one of the NHL’s proudest franchises. Wilson is familiar with the growing pains of a young team - see his stops in Anaheim and San Jose - but the fans in Toronto can be less forgiving and impatient. There will be a lot of pressure on Wilson and Fletcher to turn this team around and preferably sooner rather than later.

Work ethic is a staple of Wilson-coached teams and Toronto is no different. Wilson has done an admirable job of keeping the Maple Leafs competitive in every game, even if the results aren’t always there. The past few months have been particularly painful for the Toronto faithful. The team won only four games in the month of January (4-7-2) but did pull off a 5-4 victory over the Penguins. The Maple Leafs are 1-2-2 in February and hoping to end their slide against Pittsburgh. 
Fletcher had a busy offseason. The Maple Leafs cut ties with Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft. Jeff Finger and Mike Van Ryn were brought in to bolster the defense. Veteran forward Niklas Hagman was signed from Dallas and to give Toronto that nasty-attitude element, Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg were added. The two have combined for 89 PIMs this season. The Maple Leafs traded away former first-round picks Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to St. Louis in exchange for Lee Stempniak in late November.
The Maple Leafs send a lot of rubber on the goal. The strategy has resulted in the 11th-ranked offense with an average of 2.95 goals per game. Former first-round-pick Nik Antropov was second on the team in scoring last season with career highs in goals (26) and points (56). He is once again second on the team with 39 points (17G-22A). He suffered a 16-game goal-less streak from December to January and admitted to being mentally exhausted over trade rumors. Antropov is skating on a line with Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Stajan has improved his production every season and has 36 points (12G-24A) while Ponikarovsky has netted 16 goals and 19 assists (35 points).

Dominic Moore centers the team’s second line with Jason Blake and Matt Stempniak. Blake, a Penguin killer, is leading the Leafs with 19 goals and 23 assists for 42 points. Moore has recorded 36 points this season on 11 goals and 25 assists. Toronto traded for Stempniak from St. Louis. The 25-year-old has 29 points in 49 games this year.

Rookie Nikolai Kulemin is a 22-year-old forward from Magnitogorsk, Russia. Scouts raved about Kulemin’s potential. He has nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points. Niklas Hagman (33) and Mikhail Grabovski (27) have chipped in offensively as well.
Last season, the Leafs gave up 3.12 goals per game to rank 27th in the league. Wilson has always stressed defense to his teams and Toronto has an abundance of NHL-worthy defensemen. However, the Leafs are currently allowing a bloated 3.62 goals per game this year – ranking dead last in the league. Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina is the top tandem on the team. Kaberle posted 53 points on eight goals and 45 assists to finish third on the Maples Leafs in scoring last season, but finished with a plus-minus of minus-(-8). He tops all Leafs’ defensemen in points this year with 30, but a broken bone in his right hand will sideline him until early March.

The team added Jeff Finger in free agency and former Panther Mike Van Ryn. Van Ryn was one of the team’s best defenseman and recently returned from his second concussion of the season. The most promising blueliners on Toronto’s roster are 22-year-old Anton Stralman and 19-year-old Luke Schenn. Toronto traded up in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft to grab Schenn at No. 5. He made the roster out of camp and has tremendous upside. Schenn logs a ton of ice time and is the team’s best defensive defenseman.
Toronto hasn’t gotten much help from its goaltending tandem this year. Vesa Toskala is currently the Leafs’ starter. Wilson coached the 31-year-old netminder at San Jose. He’s posted a career record of 116-70-5-20. He posted a career-high 33 wins last year in his first opportunity to be a No. 1 goalie but is having a tough campaign this year. His goals against average is well over three (3.41) and his save percentage is far below the .900 mark (.882). But the netminder hasn’t lost a game in regulation in his past seven games (3-0-3), including a win over the Penguins

The Maple Leafs brought back former Leaf Curtis Joseph as a backup. Joseph also hasn’t looked like his normal self with a bloated 3.81 goals against average and a .854 save percentage. Help could be on the way with top goaltending prospect Justin Pogge. He is honing his craft in the AHL and has made three appearances for Toronto this season. With the struggles in net, Pogge should get an extended look at some point this season.
Jason Blake has been a Penguin killer in his NHL career. The 35-year-old forward has tallied 45 points on 22 goals and 23 assists in 45 games against Pittsburgh. Blake has seen a lot of action against the Penguins during his tenure with the New York Islanders.

Blake went undrafted and broke into the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings in 1999. But his career really blossomed on Long Island. His best season was the 2006-07 campaign when he netted 40 goals and 29 assists for 69 points. The nine-year veteran is in his second season in Toronto after signing as a free agent in 2007. He posted 52 points (15G-37A) in his first campaign with the Leafs. On the current season, Blake has posted a team-best 19 goals and 23 assists for 42 points to lead the team.
“We just have to start winning games on the road and do well on these road trips coming up. You see how close the 7 through 10 spots are in the East.”
- Ryan Whitney
Blake has nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in his last 12 games. He’s tallied a point in seven on his last nine games.

Author: Sam Kasan

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