Air Canada Centre, Toronto
Mark Letestu (PIT) — 1G, 1A
Joffrey Lupul (TOR) — 2G
Alexei Kovalev (PIT) — 1G, 1SO-G
The Toronto Maple Leafs are all too familiar with the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev after he spent the past six seasons with the division rival Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens.
If there has been one lesson to be learned about Kovalev it is that time and time again the talented Russian sniper has demonstrated that he can shake a funk and burn an opponent lickety-split, no matter how deep his struggles may be at the time.
That’s exactly what Kovalev did to the Maple Leafs on Saturday. In the second game into his return engagement with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Kovalev was a minus-two, allowed Toronto’s Colby Armstrong to provoke him into the penalty box in the third period, but exhibited his talents with the only shootout goal in a 6-5 victory for his injury-riddled team.
"Everybody has been working really hard for the two games I’ve been here," said Kovalev, who was traded to the Penguins from the Senators for a conditional seventh-round selection on Thursday. "We didn’t come up with a win [in Carolina on Friday], but I think we showed everybody tonight how bad we want to win."
Kovalev now has 17 career shootout goals, good for a tie for 17th on the all-time list.
Even though the Penguins enjoyed a 3-2 advantage entering the third period, they found themselves behind on four occasions only to tie the game. Kovalev himself drew the Penguins even at 1-1 with a goal in the final minute of the first period for his 28th goal and 72nd point in 69 career games against Toronto.
"It brings old memories back," said the 38-year-old Kovalev, who last played for the Penguins prior to the 2003 NHL trade deadline. "I can be the same player, and I feel like I have another opportunity to be that kind of player and play in the playoffs and get that Cup. It’s exciting."
After he checked in with 35- and 26-goal years in his final two seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Kovalev was not up to snuff in Ottawa. He scored only 32 goals in 131 games.
When Kovalev scored in the first period, it was his first goal for the Penguins since Feb. 8, 2003 ,when he scored in a win over the Boston Bruins. That goal was assisted by Jan Hrdina and Mario Lemieux. The next day Kovalev was traded to the New York Rangers.
Not a complete loss
Most of the 19,551 fans who exited the Air Canada Centre on Saturday left shaking their heads at an opportunity lost for their beloved blue and white. But the Maple Leafs did gain a point on the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes and now sit five back of the team that holds down the final playoff spot in the East.
The 10th-place Maple Leafs have a game in hand on the Hurricanes. But the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres, who have two more points than Toronto, have a game in hand on the Maple Leafs.
In its final 20 games, Toronto has two home games remaining against the Sabres and one visit to Carolina.
Wild third period
After the Penguins grabbed the lead with another last-minute goal in the second period, the Maple Leafs came out a different team early in the third to score goals 35 seconds apart from Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul.
"Maybe we felt too confident," was how Kovalev explained his team’s bad start in the third period.
The back-breaker for the Maple Leafs, however, was a shorthanded breakaway goal from Pittsburgh’s Max Talbot after Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf coughed up the puck at the Penguins blue-line. Phaneuf rebounded to score on the same power play less than a minute later, but the damage was done.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby missed his 23rd game since suffering a concussion as the result of hits put on him in back-to-back games by Washington’s David Steckel and Victor Hedman in early January. Although No. 87 has been engaged in some light exercise there still is no timetable for his return.
The Penguins have gone 11-9-2 since Crosby’s concussion. The Maple Leafs and Penguins meet again at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday and will avoid Crosby again. He has 17 goals and 35 points in 22 career games against Toronto.