Splitting Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin works for Penguins vs. Maple Leafs
Five games ago, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had a thought.
Why not split up Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, his two leading goal scorers? Put Malkin with Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin to take advantage of the wingers' speed and see what happens.
Sullilvan's creation never looked better than it did Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena in a battle of NHL heavyweights, won by the Penguins against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-3. The line was responsible for three goals:
• One by Hagelin on assists from Rust and Malkin that opened the game's scoring after only 3 minutes, 23 seconds.
• Another by Malkin, his 34th of the season, that created a 2-2 tie later in the first period, with assists from both linemates.
• And a third — this time by Rust, standing all alone at the corner of the net — that gave the Penguins their first two-goal lead of the night and locked down an 11th consecutive home victory. Malkin and Kris Letang assisted.
"Right now, their confidence is at an all-time high," Sullivan said of his new line.
Sullivan said Rust and Hagelin are creating good scoring chances for Malkin, who has scored 12 goals and seven assists in the past 10 games.
"What Haggy and Rusty do is they create the north-south game for Geno, and I think Geno is more inclined to shoot the puck when he plays with those guys," he said. "We think that's when he's at his best."
Defenseman Olli Maatta, actually, had the decisive goal, breaking a 3-3 tie with 12:04 left in the third period by firing a slap shot from the blue line past Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Defenseman Matt Hunwick assisted on Maatta's goal, but he was in the lineup only because Justin Schultz was out with an illness. It was only a day after TSN Hockey insider Darren Dreger reported the Penguins might use Hunwick as a trade chip.
Looking more like Matt Hunwick is on the trade block with Ian Cole playing 17-18 mins per game. Pens need cap space to acquire a forward.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) February 16, 2018
Maatta's goal was more dramatic, thanks to the timing of it. But he seemed more impressed by what Malkin has brought to the team all season.
"Every time he's on the ice he's good," Maatta said. "I feel like this season he's taking it to another level. It seems like everytime he has the puck, something's going to happen."
The same can be said for Rust and Hagelin, at least recently. After missing opportunities earlier this season, Rust has five goals and eight assists in the past 12 games; Hagelin's line reads three goals and four assists in the past seven.
"It's not like they're getting a lot more chances now than they were getting in the first half of the year," Sullivan said. "They were getting some quality chances. The puck just wasn't going in the net for them for whatever reason.
"If it doesn't go in for you early over a certain period of time, players tend to start squeezing their sticks because they're trying almost too hard to try and score goals instead of just letting it happen and trusting your instincts."
Speaking of trust, Sullivan was able to trust his team in its end of the rink after holding the Maple Leafs' three leading scorers Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner to one assist (by Matthews). It led to the Penguins breaking the Maple Leafs' five-game winning streak.
"I give our players a lot of credit," Sullivan said. "They were playing hard. We had some offensive zone time. We were hanging onto pucks.
"That's how we can control territory, control momentum. We were able to get the fifth goal because of it."
Meanwhile, goaltender Matt Murray stopped 29 of 32 shots, including a lunging glove save (his favorite kind) to his left when Zach Hyman had plenty of empty net staring at him.
He'll take a nine-game unbeaten streak into Sunday's game in Columbus. He's not sure he'll get the call on back-to-back nights, but he isn't looking for a night off.
"I'll be ready," he said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.