TORONTO – The goal felt good. Shutting down Evgeni Malkin may have felt better.
Clarke MacArthur broke a scoreless tie with his 16th of the year in the third period as the Leafs clipped the Penguins by a 1-0 final at the ACC, the second half of a home-and-home set. The game-winning goal certainly loomed large, but perhaps more satisfying to MacArthur and linemates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin was the complete lockdown of the NHL's most dominant player.
"It's fun when an offensive line comes in like that to ruin their night," MacArthur said of the Penguins top unit which also includes James Neal and Chris Kunitz. "Usually when you play offensive lines, if you work hard you're going to get some opportunities and we had three or four really good chances; it was just nice to get one and get the win."
Dominant offensively with eight goals combined (of nine for the Leafs) in the last three games, the suddenly surging line has been almost perfect of late in a shutdown role, a job they performed effectively last season.
Blanked on Wednesday night, Malkin was held largely in check a night earlier at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, an inadvertent game-tying deflection the only hiccup in what concluded as a demoralizing 5-4 shootout loss. Islanders star John Tavares landed atop the shutdown list in two games prior the All-Star break, the Mississauga native held to just a goal in a pair of Leaf wins.
"I don't know what it is," MacArthur said, "but when we do that shutdown role against top lines we always seem to thrive off it. It's a fun way to play when you're trying to shut down lines."
The victory gives the Leafs three of a possible four points against a feisty Penguins squad, also bumping them into seventh in the East with 58 points, two back of Ottawa who'll they face on Saturday.
1. Standing at six foot three, Malkin looms large physically over his five foot eleven counterpart in Grabovski, but size is not the only factor in the equation according to Ron Wilson. "One of the things we teach is being good and responsible with your stick," Wilson said. "Stick on the ice and body position. You don't have to be big. There's a lot of little guys in the league now. It's body position. And he's a good skater; he's quick." With 23 points in the last 21 games, Grabovski also has the offensive instincts to counter those he's checking. "Since he's an offensive-minded guy he kind of has an idea of what the offensive-minded person he's playing against wants to do and he's usually in the way," Wilson added. "He's got a good stick, that's the important thing."
2. A shift in mind-set may have turned around Grabovski's season. The 28-year-old took to heart the advice of assistant coaches Rob Zettler and Scott Gordon before the New Year; the pair stressed the need for greater focus in the defensive end with offence likely to follow. "I talk a little bit about with coach about my game and start to play like I play last year," Grabovski told TSN.ca last month. "If I work defensively I always have chances [on] offence...that's the key I think for me. If I play defensively good I can play offensively better." Grabovski is now tied for the team lead with a plus-6 rating (Luke Schenn). He led the Leafs with a plus-14 rating last season. "Not only is he shutting [opposing players] down," Wilson said, "but scoring, scoring a lot of points and making plays. He's done a great job."
3. Finding the necessary resolve to lock down a one-goal lead in the third period, the Leafs showed immediate growth from a night earlier when they blew a three-goal lead late in the final frame. "We completely dominated them in that game and let it get away," Wilson said. "There was so much good stuff to talk about and teaching moments about what it takes to be a playoff team. Having the lead and letting it go and assuming that the game was over was the wrong approach [Tuesday] night." A street fight of sorts ensued on Wednesday night, offering a valuable learning opportunity for a club short on playoff experience. "I'm glad it was that kind of a game," Wilson explained, "because it's another great learning game for our team in that it's playoff hockey; if you make a mistake, if you're not on your toes, if you let your guard down you're probably going to cost the team the game."
"I thought it was a harder-fought game tonight," MacArthur added. "It felt like a playoff game. There wasn't much given up on either side...I thought in the third period we kept our foot on the gas the whole time and there was no real momentum shift, we stuck with it all the way."
4. Making just his second start of the New Year, James Reimer stopped 25 shots for his second shutout of the season. "Obviously I really wanted to get this win," Reimer said. "It's been a tough last couple weeks. Things really haven't gone my way. I felt like I was playing well, but just wasn't getting the bounces and tonight I got a lot of bounces. It was just nice to have everything fall into place and just be on the winning side when the buzzer went." Reimer lost his only previous start in 2012, a 3-2 setback to Ottawa on January 17. Bounces were seemingly on the 23-year-old's side; Neal hit the cross-bar just seconds before MacArthur put the Leafs ahead for good. "He was a little shaky early in the game finding pucks," Wilson said, "but as the game wore on I thought he started to make a lot of big saves and was pretty sharp."
5. The Leaf penalty kill continued its unlikely string of perfection on Wednesday night, holding the Penguins off the board in two opportunities. The unit has gone 13 consecutive games without allowing a powerplay goal (19-19). "It's a big shot of confidence in everybody's arm that we feel really good going out and killing penalties now," Wilson said.
John-Michael Liles and Colby Armstrong returned from injury in the win. Liles logged 19 minutes in his first game since December 23, while Armstrong totaled an effective 10:27 on the fourth line, his first action since December 17...The Leafs have won eight of their last 11 games at home (8-3-0)...Dion Phaneuf led the Leafs with nearly 28 minutes of ice-time, much of it opposite Malkin and the Penguins top unit...Grabovski led all Leaf forwards with 21:27...Held pointless on Wednesday, Phil Kessel has just three points in the last 10 games...David Steckel finished 9-12 (75 per cent) in the faceoff circle. The Leafs won 60 per cent of the draws...Mike Komisarek sat as a healthy scratch for the fourth time this season...The Leaf powerplay finished 0-4 and is just 2-28 over the last nine games...MacArthur has scored just three of his 16 goals at home. The Leafs are 9-2-1 when he scores...Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie were assigned to the Marlies before the game.