TORONTO – After two listless, disheartening performances, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe wanted to see “signs of life” from his team.
Toronto delivered on Thursday night. Now the challenge is to bottle it moving forward.
Jake Muzzin had a goal and two assists, Frederik Andersen made 24 saves for his second shutout of the season, and the Leafs beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0.
Toronto’s talent-loaded roster spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning answering questions about work ethic and their level of urgency in a season that could be slipping away, but showed plenty of pushback against a team that spanked them just 48 hours earlier.
“You just don’t like to get embarrassed,” Keefe said. “Our guys have a lot of pride in themselves, a lot of pride in the jersey and the organization.
“We like that we got the response, we like the outcome, we love the result.”
William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman also scored for Toronto (32-22-8), which suffered that humiliating loss 5-2 in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. John Tavares added two assists for the Leafs, who are battling the Florida Panthers for the Atlantic Division’s third and final playoff spot.
Unlike its last two outings, Toronto was hard on the forecheck, stingy in front of Andersen, mostly avoided the penalty box, and stayed on the attack in a third period where the visitors registered just two shots.
Maintaining this level is the next step in the process.
“It’s tough,” Muzzin, a Stanley Cup winner in 2014 with the Los Angeles Kings, said of playing the same way night in and night out. “There’s a lot of games in the season, travel, back-to-backs, injuries … (stuff) happens. It’s tough to continually bring that consistency.
“But the best teams in the league, they do it.”
Matt Murray made 26 stops for Pittsburgh (37-16-6), which suffered its most lopsided loss of 2019-20.
“They’re a really good team in the offensive zone,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who had four points against the Leafs on Tuesday. “Unfortunately we didn’t play enough in their zone and wear them down.”
Toronto was coming off back-to-back road losses — an ugly 5-2 setback Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres and the shocking defeat in Pittsburgh where the Penguins toyed with the Leafs in building a 5-0 lead just past the midway point of the second period.
“There’s definitely a learning curve,” said Leafs winger Kyle Clifford, who won Cups in 2012 and 2014 with the Kings. “This is a young group and they’re going to learn on the go.
“You see a response like (Thursday), it’s a real encouraging sign.”
Following a scoreless first, a vast improvement compared to Tuesday’s 2-0 deficit, Toronto pushed in front at 7:45 of the second when Muzzin’s point shot pinged in off the post with newly-acquired Denis Malgin providing a screen. The defenceman celebrated his fifth goal of the campaign by high-fiving jubilant backup goalie Jack Campbell on the bench.
Toronto got a 5-on-3 power play for 1:53 midway through the period — deploying five forwards for the second straight game — and cracked the Penguins’ penalty kill when Nylander beat Murray through the pads for his 27th at 10:01.
Kapanen then made it 3-0 with his 12th at 13:04 when he was sprung on a breakaway by Alexander Kerfoot.
And Toronto’s response to Tuesday wasn’t just between the whistles.
Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist took a couple of runs at Leafs rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin late in the second. Kapanen intervened and got a cross-check up high for his troubles before dropping the gloves with Pittsburgh’s Jared McCann.
“Stuff happens,” Kapanen. “If it wasn’t me out there, I’m sure someone else would have stood up.”
Clifford, the Leafs’ new resident tough guy after coming over in a trade with L.A. earlier this month, was impressed by his new teammate’s willingness to engage.
“Kappy’s a fiery guy and he’s got a competitive spirit,” he said. “You don’t expect him to do that on a nightly basis, but that’s what makes good teams great.”
Hyman put things out of reach at 3:56 of the third when he slid home his 19th in just his 43rd game of 2019-20 after missing the first 19 following off-season knee surgery.
Having struggled mightily for most of 2020, Andersen held the fort the rest of the way as the Leafs closed defensive ranks around their goalie to help him pick up the 18th shutout of his career.
“That was a great response from everyone,” Andersen said. “You’ve got to be pissed off … we learned a lot from that previous game in Pittsburgh.
“When we play like this we can compete with anyone”
The Leafs, who woke up Thursday out of the playoffs with 21 games left on the schedule, came in 7-8-3 over their last 18 — with just four 60-minute victories over that span — following a 15-4-1 start to Keefe’s tenure after he replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is in a battle with the Washington Capitals atop the Metropolitan Division.
Andersen entered with an .871 save percentage dating back to Jan. 6 and was 0-3-0 since returning from a neck injury that cost him four games, but he made 14 stops in the opening period, including five on a late power play for the Leafs’ first successful kill against Pittsburgh in five attempts in 2019-20 to set the stage for his team’s offensive explosion.
Toronto will now look for a repeat showing Saturday at home against the Carolina Hurricanes — and beyond.
“That’s the trick, right?” Kapanen said. “We’ve just got to find a way.”
“Enjoy tonight, remember what it felt like, the mindset we had coming in and bring it again,” Muzzin added. “We’ve got to be desperate.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2020.
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