Short-handed Penguins manage a victory over visiting Maple Leafs
There was defiance in the Penguins on this night.
Controversial hits and incidents have been the talk of the NHL for weeks — and make no mistake, the Penguins have been front and center in many regards — but the Penguins played their most physical game of the season in a 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs at Consol Energy Center on Monday.
Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo set the tone. He got the best of Toronto's Troy Bodie in a first-period fight, delivered a game-high six hits — one of them controversial — was a plus-2 and recorded an assist on Sidney Crosby's game-winning goal.
“I think someone slipped gunpowder in his pregame meal,” center Joe Vitale said.
The same could be said of the entire team, which outhit Toronto, 36-25.
Playing with eight players who were pegged to begin the season in the American Hockey League, the Penguins punched and clawed their way to a victory.
Bortuzzo delivered a third-period hit on forward Jerry D'Amigo in which a portion of his right arm hit D'Amigo's head. Bortuzzo will not face any discipline for the hit to the head, which NHL Player Safety deemed was unavoidable in a decision announced after the game.
Bortuzzo was given a two-minute penalty and, two shifts later, obliterated D'Amigo with a hit that knocked the forward out of the game.
Even Crosby got in on the act, punching Toronto's Nazem Kadri following a brief spat and earning a two-minute penalty.
Forward Zach Sill also dropped the gloves for the Penguins, winning a spirited fight against Bodie.
Coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that he has wanted to see more physical play from his team. It answered the bell against the Maple Leafs.
“It's not part of our identity,” Bylsma said. “We've focused on being better in that regard, in terms of the forecheck. It's something we're continuing to get better at as a group.”
Some Penguins acknowledged that being physical against Toronto was part of their plan. With such a depleted lineup — the Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and their top four defensemen — beating the speedy Maple Leafs in a game of skill seemed unlikely.
So, the Penguins beat them with tenacity instead.
“When the opportunity is there with the group we have, you have to play physical,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “A guy like Robert Bortuzzo is going to hit someone if the hit is there. They have a lot of skill. You have to be hard on them, and we were tonight.”
Niskanen didn't have a problem with Bortuzzo's hit on D'Amigo.
“It was legal,” he said. “I don't know if he got him in the head. Those are the tough ones. It was fast; he's taller than him. Sometimes you catch him in the chin. At first glance, I thought it was a good hit.”
And at first glance, the Penguins had to be happy with the performance of many new players.
Brian Dumoulin recorded an assist in his second NHL game. Fellow defensemen Philip Samuelsson, playing in front of his father, former Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, acquitted himself nicely.
Other players who started the season in the AHL, notably Harry Zolnierczyk and Jayson Megna, stood out because of their speed and physical play.
When a goal was necessary, a bigger name was available to record the game-winner.
Sidney Crosby notched his 19th goal of the year, and Brandon Sutter added an empty-netter to lift the Penguins' home record to 15-3. Most of those wins have been a product of skill. This one was more brutal.
The Penguins likely will play without Megna against the Rangers on Wednesday. He sustained a lower-body injury.
“The refs let some things go early on,” Crosby said. “It kind of escalated. They let us play.”