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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Maple Leafs

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (28-17-4) vs. MAPLE LEAFS (25-19-5)

Jan. 31, 2012 - 7:00 pm  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center

WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The Toronto Maple Leafs exit the All-Star break in a tight battle for a playoff spot. Toronto is currently on the outside looking in, sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Head coach Ron Wilson, who will overtake Mike Keenan for fifth place in career NHL games coached Tuesday (1,386), has steered the team to a 25-19-5 record. The Leafs haven’t made the postseason since 2004, but has a right to be optimistic about their chances.

Maple Leafs (Getty Images)
Offensive defenseman John-Michael Liles and winger Colby Armstrong are close to returning to the lineup after recovering from concussions. Their returns should only help Toronto, which is starting to play highly competitive hockey, winning their of its last four games heading into the break (Note: Jonas Siegel of TSN Radio is reporting that neither Liles nor Armstrong will be available against the Pens).

The Maple Leafs offense has gotten a boost from secondary scoring contributions lately - particularly from Mikhail Grabovski, who was named the NHL's First Star of the Week - to compliment the All-Star talents and Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.

Kessel leads the team with 26 goals and is on pace to set a new career high in that category. Lupul, an alternate captain for Team Chara at the All-Star Game this weekend in Ottawa, leads the team with 52 points (20G-32A) – one behind his career best total.

Even the Leafs penalty kill, which ranks dead-last in the NHL with a 75-percent success rate, has improved dramatically. Toronto has not allowed a power-play goal against in the entire month of January – going a perfect 16-for-16.

Much of that success can be attributed to goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. The “Monster” has won seven of his last 10 games. Three of those wins came with Gustavsson posting a shutout. Gustavsson played on back-to-back nights against the Islanders, and could see action in both games against Pittsburgh.

The Leafs entered the All-Star break with two wins over the NY Islanders on consecutive nights, the first time they’ve achieved that since 2009 (NY Rangers). Now Toronto starts their playoff quest hoping to repeat the feat with a home-and-home, back-to-back series with the Penguins.


Lupul is enjoying his best season in the NHL. He leads the Leafs with 52 points – one behind his career best. The 28-year-old already has 20 goals on the season and could eclipse 30 for the first time in his career. Lupul, who served as an alternate captain for Team Chara at the All-Star Game, has progressed to a point-per-game player this season, fulfilling the promise that made him the seventh-overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft (Anaheim).

With all the injuries suffered from the Pens this season, particularly on defense, Matt Niskanen has quietly been the club’s most reliable blueliner. He’s posted a plus or even rating in eight of the team’s last nine games while averaging 17:30 minutes of ice time. Niskanen hasn’t been flashy, but he’s certainly been steady. He’s gone unnoticed at times, but as a defenseman that’s a good thing.

Tonight the Penguins will be looking to extend their season-high seven-game winning streak. Only the Boston Bruins, who had a 10-game winning streak from Nov. 1-23, have had a longer streak this season. With a win tonight the Penguins will become the first NHL team to have two winning streaks of eight or more games over the previous two seasons (won 12 straight games between Nov. 17-Dec. 11, 2010). The Penguins will also be hoping to continue their three-game home winning streak.

This is one of three instances this season where the Penguins will play back-to-back games against the same team. On Oct. 25 and 27, the Penguins swept the NY Islanders by scores of 3-0 and 3-2 in a shootout. The Penguins will have a home-and-home against the Islanders again on March 27 and 29.

Pittsburgh has outshot its opponent for 15 consecutive games by an average margin of 36.9-23.9 dating back to their 4-1 win at Winnipeg on Dec. 23.

The Penguins will be wearing their white jerseys tonight against the Maple Leafs. Pittsburgh will also wear its white jerseys at home on Feb. 26 when it hosts the Columbus Blue Jackets.

-The Penguins have won the first game following the All-Star Break in four straight seasons, and they are 6-2-1 in their last nine such games. All-time the Penguins are 14-10-4 at home in the first game following the All-Star Break. –SOURCE: Bob Grove.

Pens forwards Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal and defenseman Simon Despres skated together before the team's practice Monday.

F Arron Asham, illness/concussion-like symptoms (6)
C Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms (22)
D Simon Despres, knee (9)
F Jordan Staal, knee (11)

F Colby Armstrong, concussion (17)
F Darryl Boyce, back (5)
D John-Michael Liles, concussion (15)

Author: Sam Kasan

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