Stars align as Matthews, Maple Leafs visit Penguins
PITTSBURGH — It’s always a head-turner when Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby faces one of the new-wave, high-octane players in the NHL. That will be the case Saturday night when Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs visit PPG Paints Arena.
Crosby, 30, has been considered the face of hockey as the top player of his generation for several years and has a trove of trophies, but he tracks the younger stars.
Matthews, 20, a second-year center who leads the Maple Leafs with 26 points, including 13 goals, has earned Crosby’s respect.
“I don’t know him well enough to know how he approaches it day to day, but I think by getting to know him a little bit, I think that his maturity (is a strength),” Crosby said Friday.
“And the fact that he played in a pro league (in Switzerland in 2015-16) before he played in the NHL, played with older guys, his demeanor is probably a strength when you’re playing in a market like Toronto and all the pressure and expectations. I think he’s handled it really well.”
Matthews had zero points in his first two games against Pittsburgh as a rookie last season, but had a goal and an assist in their third meeting, a 5-3 Toronto win on April 8 that clinched Toronto’s first playoff berth since 2012-13.
The Maple Leafs won two of three against the Penguins last season. Going into their first meeting of this season, Toronto (18-10-1), which is 4-2-0 in its past six games, has a two-point edge in the Eastern Conference over Pittsburgh (16-11-3), winners of five of its past six.
Still, the Maple Leafs seem to view playing the two-time defending champion Penguins as a good measuring tool.
“Playing against the best teams brings the best out of you,” Toronto center Nazem Kadri said. In my opinion, playing teams like the Pittsburghs and the Chicagos and the LAs, I think that brings the best out of you and prepares you for the best.”
Kadri embraces the challenge.
“I love it. Personally, for me, it’s fun,” he said. “Those guys push you to bring out your best because if you don’t they’ll make you look bad. As a team, especially heading into a city like Pittsburgh, knowing the history they’ve had the past few years, we’re going to have to be better.”
The Maple Leafs are coming off 2-1 shootout win over Calgary on Tuesday, but they weren’t happy about the game.
“I thought Calgary outplayed us as badly as we’ve been outplayed all year,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be, but we found a way to win — and I think that’s an important quality to have as well. We’re going to have to be way better against Pittsburgh.”
The Maple Leafs, like a lot of other clubs, rely heavily on speed, something that could very well be a form of emulation of the Penguins, considering their success with speed.
“The evolution of the game is the speed of the game that jumps out at me over the last three-plus years,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “It just seems like every year teams get faster and speed becomes the ultimate competitive advantage.
“Toronto’s got a young team. They can skate. They have good team speed. They move the puck well. They’re one of those teams that is trying to play a similar style that we’ve been playing.”
Matthews likes that similarity, and the challenge.
“They’re fast. They play with a lot of speed, just like us,” he said. “They’ve been the best the last two years. Those are the type of games you get up for, that you want to make sure you show up for.”