The Pittsburgh Penguins won their third Stanley Cup in June with a pair of tense, one-goal victories, and their propensity for winning tight games doesn't seem to have disappeared over the summer after pulling out three contests that have gone down to the wire.
Any sort of win against the Toronto Maple Leafs would suffice for the Penguins, and they'll look to end a three-game skid versus coach Ron Wilson's club Saturday night at Air Canada Centre where they face the winless Maple Leafs.
Pittsburgh (3-1-0) trailed Detroit 3-2 in the Stanley Cup finals, but the offensively loaded club displayed its defensive mettle with a pair of 2-1 victories to close out the Red Wings and win the Cup.
Leaning on that experience, the Penguins played three closely contested games against Atlantic Division opponents in the first week of this season and walked away with two points in each. The latest came Thursday in Philadelphia, where Conn Smythe Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin scored and assisted on new linemate Jordan Staal's first goal to help lift Pittsburgh past the rival Flyers 5-4.
"We may not always be thinking about (facing division opponents), but later in the season these points could be very important," captain Sidney Crosby told the Penguins' official Web site. "We have a lot of games left against the division but this is a good start."
Pittsburgh went 15-4-5 last season against the tough Atlantic, but 8-11-1 against the Northeast Division.
The primary culprit in the Penguins' struggles against the Northeast was Toronto (0-2-1), which beat Pittsburgh three times in four tries, averaging six goals in the process. Nik Antropov led the way for the Maple Leafs, scoring four goals and assisting on four others.
Antropov is in Atlanta now, but Alexei Ponikarovsky also thrived versus Pittsburgh in 2008-09, scoring a goal in each of Toronto's wins while adding two assists.
Ponikarovsky had goals in each of the Maple Leafs' first two losses this season, but was held off the scoreboard Tuesday against Ottawa. Matt Stajan scored his team-high third goal, but that was all the offense Toronto could muster in a 2-1 loss that left Wilson fuming.
"We'll find most of our forwards (Wednesday)," Wilson said. "That was almost an embarrassing effort from seven or eight guys who we're really counting on heavily."
Rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson played well in the loss to the Senators after struggling when he replaced starter Vesa Toskala in a loss at Washington last Saturday. Gustavsson, however, was placed on injured reserve Thursday and will miss at least a week as he recovers from a groin injury.
Despite Gustavsson's potential, the Leafs should feel comfortable with Toskala in net. The veteran netminder is 5-0-0 with a 2.60 goals-against average in his last five starts against Pittsburgh.
Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, is 1-2-0 with a 4.92 GAA in three career games at Air Canada Centre, yielding at least four goals in each.
Despite the Penguins' recent struggles against Toronto, the Maple Leafs haven't been able to reign in Pittsburgh's offensive stars. Crosby has eight goals and 17 assists in 16 games against Toronto, while Malkin has 28 points in 12 games.
"I expect a tough game," Crosby said. "They're always strong at home and start well. We expect it to be a pretty high-paced game."