TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs (optional) and Penguins (optional) skated at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
Sidney Crosby led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup final in his third NHL season. He hoisted the trophy in his fourth. As the young Maple Leafs struggle to find the winning mindset, Pittsburgh's captain was asked how his group made it work so early in his career.
"I don't have all the answers," the 32-year-old insisted. "I'm not going to pretend I do, but I think consistency is the biggest thing."
Consistency and no complacency – even with three championships on his resume.
"Whether you've won or you haven't, you're always trying to find that," Crosby said. "So, I don’t think winning necessarily guarantees anything."
Per usual, Crosby is leading by example. He has racked up 23 points in 13 games since returning from sports hernia surgery on Jan. 14. That includes four points in Tuesday's blowout win against the Leafs.
"He performs at the highest level all the time and he's consistent," said veteran Leafs forward Jason Spezza. "He drags his teammates into the fight. He's a guy that, it doesn't matter what happens to their team, he's always able to elevate guys and elevate his own game and they've become a model franchise for consistency. It shows Sid's drive and how he’s never satisfied with himself. I've been able to be around him quite a bit and he makes you want to be better just by his work ethic."
Even without Crosby in the lineup for 28 games this season, his presence was felt. That’s a big reason why the Penguins didn't just survive, but thrived in his absence.
"I don't think there's any question that he inspires his teammates with his work ethic," said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. "I think work ethic is something that's contagious."
The Penguins have lost 247 man-games to injury this season and are currently without Nick Bjugstad, Brian Dumoulin, Jake Guentzel, John Marino and Zach Aston-Reece. And yet they just passed the Capitals for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
"Just our work ethic," said Crosby when asked what he likes the most about this year's Penguins. "We've had a lot of injuries, a lot of adversity and just continued to play the same way regardless of who's in the lineup and haven't looked for any excuses at any point."
The Penguins have made the playoffs in 13 straight seasons while no other NHL team has a longer streak than five seasons (Nashville and Washington).
"As players there's a high expectation, so I think every year, regardless of the changeover or turnover or whatever you want to call it, the expectation is still there to be successful and compete for a playoff spot," Crosby said. "That's the expectation coming into camp every year; we try and set the standard high."
Toronto is trying to establish a winning culture. It won't happen overnight, but responding to adversity is important.
"We can come out today and have the best game of the season, it doesn't mean we're out of the woods," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "We're looking for consistency here. That's what you’re looking for, but we need signs of life at this time and that's what we're really looking for from our team."
Keefe has seen this group respond to adversity before. His favourite example came early in his tenure. The Leafs faded badly in a loss in Philadelphia on Dec. 3 earning a tongue-lashing from the new bench boss. The next night, after Frederik Andersen asked to return to the net despite the back-to-back scenario, Toronto lost 3-1 to Colorado on home ice, but Keefe said it was one of their most competitive games.
This situation, though, feels different. Points are crucial and the Leafs are coming off consecutive poor outings in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. So, it's a bigger challenge with a bigger potential payoff.
"I believe if we come through this and get ourselves on the other side of it we'll be far more prepared to play in the playoffs than we would have been previously," Keefe said. "As a team, when you're trying to take a step, trying to get to another level we have to acknowledge and recognize it’s not going to be smooth."
With the Leafs sliding out of a playoff spot last night, a big media contingent turned out for the morning skate. Spezza was asked about criticism over the team's lack of urgency.
"I don't know what angle you're looking for," the 36-year-old said. "It's tough. We're getting criticized, you know, but that's part of the game. When you don't win games you open yourself up to criticism. I think last year everybody talked about how they cruised into playoffs and didn't play meaningful games. Well, now we're playing meaningful hockey, so we're exactly where we want to be and we have a chance to grow."
Tavares believes he and the Leafs must escape their comfort zone to reach a new level.
What does that look like? Tavares used the example of puck battles.
"Not being satisfied with not being on the right side of it," the captain said. "Are you going to win 100 per cent of them? No, but you want to give yourself the best opportunity more often than not to earn it, and usually when you do that it leads to other parts of the game opening up and everything starts to feel a little bit easier."
The Leafs have scored just 2.7 goals per game since the calendar flipped to February. The team has just one regulation win in that 10-game stretch.
"We have to find a way to get the puck more especially along the boards and in the corners, fighting for (and) getting to the interior of the ice and getting better quality chances that way and defending hard in that area so just being ultra-competitive and finding another level outside of your own comfort zone," Tavares said.
Tristan Jarry beat the Leafs on Tuesday, but the Penguins goalie rotation continues tonight as Matt Murray gets back in. He's 7-1-1 in last nine starts with a .927 save percentage.
After missing Tuesday's game and Wednesday's practice due to illness, Evgeni Malkin skated this morning and is trending toward a return.
"He feels a lot better so we're certainly encouraged that he'll be able to play," Sullivan noted.
Malkin has 64 points in 38 games against the Leafs, which is just seven back of the franchise record held by Mario Lemieux (71 points in 33 games).
After a cross-continent trip from California, Denis Malgin skated this morning, the only Leafs regular to hit the ice.
The 23-year-old forward seemed a bit nervous during his first session with reporters. The seven-camera scrum was unlike anything he'd ever experienced with Florida.
"I was really excited," Malgin said of his reaction to the trade. "When I was a little kid I always thought, 'How is it to play in Montreal or Toronto?' Now, I'm here and I'm excited."
Malgin will wear 62, which is the number the Panthers gave him when he arrived for his first camp with the team.