From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did not register goals in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first two games of the season and the team came away with two road wins and four points.
The Penguins’ dynamic duo both scored during Wednesday night’s home opener against Toronto at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. And when both of their superstars score in the same game, the Penguins are 35-4-1, and 22-2-0 at home.
This time, it wasn’t enough. The Penguins can’t explain it, either. They also can’t seem to solve the Maple Leafs.
Toronto, a team that gave the Penguins fits last season, scored the final three goals of the game to spoil Pittsburgh’s home opener and come away with a 5-2 victory.
“Last year, against this Toronto Maple Leafs’ team, which gave us a lot of problems, the games looked a lot like they did today,” Penguins’ head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We gave them too much room and space and didn’t have the same focus and attention to detail.”
The teams each won two games last year against one another, splitting the season series. The victories the Penguins did manage didn’t come easy, once winning in a shootout and the other by one goal.
“We weren’t very successful against them last year, either,” Penguins’ forward Chris Kunitz said. “They have our number for some reason.
“When they had their opportunities, they put pucks in the net.”
The Maple Leafs used their speed to take advantage, putting pressure on the Penguins’ defense, creating chances, and capitalizing on Pittsburgh mistakes.
“Their speed is kind of magnified if you turn the puck over and don’t manage the puck in the neutral zone,” Pens’ defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The Penguins opened the lockout-shortened season with back-to-back road wins this past weekend against Atlantic Division rivals Philadelphia and New York.
Crosby and Malkin didn’t score during the two road wins, but they both found the back of the net against Toronto — Crosby’s his first goal in a home opener since 2006.
Still, the Maple Leafs prevented the Penguins from starting the season 3-0 for the first time since 1994-95 — another lockout shortened season when Pittsburgh won seven of its first eight games en route to a 12-0-1 start.
James Van Riemsdyk scored twice, ultimately netting the game-winner, while Mikhail Grabovski provided insurance in the form of a two-goal cushion early in the third. Goaltender James Reimer turned aside 28 of 30 shots while Clarke MacArthur also scored and Tyler Bozak added a five-on-three power-play goal in the waning moments.
“I think we didn’t get to our game consistently,” Crosby said. “We didn’t get enough shifts in their end…we didn’t execute and make passes through the neutral zone as well as we could have. It was definitely not our best game, that’s for sure.”
But it very well could have been their best penalty-killing effort, especially with the game tied during the second period.
The Penguins spent five minutes in the second period killing penalties, including consecutive five-on-three disadvantages, one lasting 50 seconds and resulting in just one shot.
“(The penalty kill) did a great job and really gave us a chance in the second period,” Bylsma said. “I thought our penalty killing was very good again tonight.”
And it was. The Penguins successfully killed off seven of eight Toronto power plays, the only goal a meaningless one in the final minute of the game. The Penguins spent so much time killing penalties, they couldn’t get Crosby, Malkin and James Neal on the ice to generate any kind of attack.
“Those three guys sitting on the bench all second period really minimizes your chances offensively,” Orpik said. “Even if you kill those, it takes energy out of you. Having those three guys sit on the bench isn’t a really good recipe for winning hockey games.”
Turnovers don’t help, either.
Van Riemsdyk turned Malkin’s errant breakout pass into his second goal of the game, picking off the Penguins’ superstar at the top of the circle and ripping a wrist shot over Fleury’s shoulder to give the Maple Leafs the lead for good.
“There just wasn’t enough execution with the puck,” Bylsma said. “On their third goal, we put it right on their tape and they put it in our net.”
The Penguins’ three-goal loss against the Leafs wasn’t the ideal return the 18,641 at the Consol Energy Center envisioned after suffering through a senseless 119-day lockout. But the standing-room-only crowd — the largest to ever see a hockey game at Consol Energy Center — was treated to a lot more than hockey.
Wednesday’s game was the first National Hockey League tilt at Consol Energy Center since April 20 when the Penguins staved off postseason elimination, defeating the Flyers, 3-2, in Game 5 before falling in Game 6 at Philadelphia during their first-round playoff series.
The organization, as a thank-you to the fans, handed out vouchers for three free concession items, slashed merchandise by 50 percent — promotions that will be repeated for three more games — and displayed Malkin’s Hart, Art Ross and Ted Lindsay Award trophies.
Youth skaters adorned in Penguin jerseys dotted the runway near the bench as the Penguins were introduced to the capacity crowd during a pregame ceremony, lining the center circle one-by-one before collectively raising their sticks in tribute to the fans.
Deryk Engelland and Colton Orr treated the fans to an all-out slugfest six minutes into the game where the two went blow-for-blow, exchanging multiple punches with neither gaining an advantage.
Malkin brought them out of their seat with a late power play goal in the opening period.
The reigning Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner took a pass from Crosby along the goal-line before turning and squeezing a shot behind Reimer, staking the Penguins to a 1-0 advantage.
MacArthur tied it a little more than three minutes into the second, redirecting a Nazem Kardi shot from the top of the circle behind Fleury.
Van Riemsdyk put the Maple Leafs ahead three and a half minutes later, taking a cross-crease pass from Nikolai Kulemin, who blew by Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang to set up the goal.
Crosby responded with the tying goal 29 seconds later, taking a long feed from Pascal Dupuis and burying a half-slapper behind Reimer on a partial breakaway.
“(Dupuis) did a great job of finding me behind the defense,” Crosby said. “I was able to get behind the ‘D’ and put a shot in.”
But it was the last the Penguins would put behind Reimer.
Their marathon five-minute penalty killing effort was enough to keep the game tied, but the Penguins fell apart defensively after returning to even strength, ultimately costing them the game.
“Both goals in the second period were because of poor management with the puck,” Bylsma said. “We gave them opportunities in those situations and obviously were not where we needed to be to have success.”
NOTES: The Penguins are 23-13-9 in home openers…Crosby, with 18 goals in 23 games against the Maple Leafs, has points in seven straight games against Toronto…Malkin has scored 10 times in 21 games against the Leafs…The Penguins have killed all 13 five-on-four disadvantages, allowing only two goals in five on three situations…Bylsma tied Red Kelly for second place on the Penguins’ all-time list for games coached…Pittsburgh’s 255-game sellout streak dates back to Feb. 14, 2007 at the now-razed Civic Arena.