Grabovski nets OT winner as Leafs edge Penguins
Air Canada Centre, Toronto
Mikhail Grabovski (TOR) - 1G, 1A
Matt Niskanen (PIT) - 1G, 1A
Phil Kessel (TOR) - 1G, 1A
Phil Kessel’s scoring slump is clearly in the rearview mirror, so on Wednesday night he decided to help a fellow Leaf teammate out of one of his own.
Kessel set up Mikhail Grabovski for the game-winner 42 seconds into overtime as Toronto scored a come-from-behind 3-2 win over the depleted Pittsburgh Penguins at the Air Canada Centre.
"It was an important goal for me," said Grabovski, who has endured a six-game scoring slump since his dramatic two-goal performance in a victory against Boston on Feb. 15. "Just a great pass from Phil."
Kessel found him alone in front of the Pittsburgh goal, and Grabovski slid the puck under Marc-André Fleury’s legs, finishing off a great end-to-end rush by captain Dion Phaneuf.
The Leaf captain held off the Penguins defenders long enough to get the puck over to Carl Gunnarsson, starting a tic-tac-toe play that ended in Grabovski’s goal.
It was an escape hatch for the Leafs who, for 50 minutes of the game, were outworked and outplayed by a depleted Penguins side that threatened to nick two more points off Toronto, who lost to Pittsburgh 6-5 in a shootout on Saturday.
Getting the bounces
But down 2-1 in the third period, Kessel came to the rescue again. Fresh off his player-of-the-week award, he tied the game at 5:07 of the frame, deflecting in a Gunnarsson point shot.
It’s the kind of bounce Kessel wasn’t getting during his 14-game scoring slump.
"I got a break, it hit my pants," he said. "You need those every once in a while, right?"
He now has eight goals in his last eight games. Nikolai Kulemin had the Leafs’ other marker.
Now Toronto (28-27-9) moves back to within four points of Carolina for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and two away from Buffalo in ninth. The Leafs are even with the Hurricanes in games played (64), while the Sabres have two games in hand.
"[It’s] just a huge, huge goal for our team," said Clarke MacArthur, who chipped in an assist. "We really don’t have time to be nervous."
Nerves may have been creeping in for the squad over the last two games as well, which saw Toronto lose two valuable points in a Saturday shootout loss to a Pittsburgh side missing (among others) Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and an OT loss to Atlanta a day later.
Penguins owned the first 40
Aside from a few sparks of fight from Toronto, Pittsburgh carried the play for the first two periods, outshooting the Leafs 17-10 in that span despite Toronto holding one extra power play in that span (four to the Penguins’ three).
"We didn’t have any zone time [in the first two periods]," said Toronto head coach Ron Wilson. "We were a little tentative, a little tight, but we found a way to hang in there."
That was in part thanks to goalie James Reimer, who had another solid game in the Leaf crease, stopping 27 shots and looking no worse for wear after a knock to the head sent him out of Sunday’s game against Atlanta.
"No, not at all," he said when asked whether there were any lingering side effects. "I felt better every day."
Fleury had less to do in Pittsburgh’s net, stopping 17 shots.
Matt Niskanen had a goal and an assist for the Penguins (37-21-7), while Chris Conner scored Pittsburgh’s other marker.
Pittsburgh netted the first goal of the game, coming from a slap shot at the point by Niskanen at 6:52 of the first, after Maxime Talbot beat Toronto’s Tyler Bozak cleanly on a faceoff in the Leaf zone.
A bang-bang play got Toronto back into the game against the grain at 14:04 of the first, when Kulemin fired a shot past Fleury at the left faceoff dot after receiving a pass from MacArthur.
The Penguins again carried the play in the second and nabbed the lead again at 6:40, when Conner was sent in alone by Niskanen, fought off Phaneuf’s check and slid the puck through Reimer’s legs for his seventh goal of the season.
Toronto doesn’t have much time to revel in the win, as the Leafs travel to Philadelphia to face former teammate Kris Versteeg and the East-leading Flyers on Thursday. Pittsburgh visits New Jersey on Friday.
Pens not pleased with point
Normally, a lineup that is missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik would have been pleased to pick up a point.
But the Penguins, a team that has encountered 151 man games lost to injury since Jan. 1, felt that the way they played in the second period, in limiting the Maple Leafs to only four shots, that they should have departed Toronto with a second victory in five days.
Pittsburgh forward Chris Conner put his club in front 2-1 midway through the second period, but no matter how much the ice was tilted in the Penguins favour after that, they failed to score the next goal to give them a comfortable lead.
"I would have liked to have seen us get to 3-1," said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, whose team beat Toronto 6-5 in a shootout last Saturday. "We did have some good chances, especially on a couple rebounds in the second period. We did a lot of good things, but missed opportunities."
The Penguins were especially good in the back-checking department. They lassoed 14 takeaways to the Maple Leafs’ six in the game. But there was some on-ice chemistry missing around the goal.
The lack of finish was due to do the roster changes the Penguins have undergone recently. Three players within the past 10 days were added in trades – defenceman Matt Niskanen, James Neil and Alex Kovalev – and veteran blue-liner Paul Martin returned to the lineup against the Maple Leafs after missing four games with an upper-body injury.
While Orpik isn’t expected back for another three weeks from his broken finger and Malkin has been lost for the season, there still is no timetable set for Crosby and his concussion woes. Crosby missed his 24th game on Wednesday. The Penguins have gone 11-10-3 in his absence but still occupy fourth spot in the East.