They are within 24 hours of a lackluster home loss that ended with a pullover thrown by fans on the ice and a head coach who made sure well-paid superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner shared the same public blame, alongside new Guy Nick Ritchie, for the lack of production from his top line.
And the Maple Leafs will be watching across the ice an exhausted Pittsburgh Penguins roster with no superstars to shame.
We’re only five games deep here, and the Unlucky Pens will dress up a roster that doesn’t include – take a deep breath – Sidney Crosby (wrist), Evgeni Malkin (knee), Bryan Rust (lower body), Jeff Carter (COVID protocol) or Kris Letang (COVID protocol). Base players all.
Letang has tested positive once, coach Mike Sullivan announced on Saturday morning, and the number 1 defenseman is unavailable pending confirmation tests. Carter is confirmed positive but asymptomatic so far.
At the bottom of its summit Three center men, Sullivan promoted Leaf Brief Evan Rodrigues to pivot Jake Guentzel and Kasperi Kapanen on his top unit.
Teddy Blueger (144 NHL experience games), undrafted Drew O’Connor (13 NHL games) and veteran Brian Boyle (another Leaf who won that position by try) round out the center of the ice. of Pittsburgh.
“I don’t think we need to change the way we play. I just think we need to simplify the way we play – and that’s really the conversation we’ve had with our group, ”said Sullivan, projecting confidence in the face of adversity.
“We’re going to have to play a tough game. We are going to need a collective effort. We have to pay attention to the details. We have to rely on our structure. We have to be confident that everyone is going to do their job.
“Most importantly, we have to compete. “
One can imagine Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe delivering a similar message to his star forwards, who were relegated to the perimeter in Friday’s 5-3 loss to San Jose.
Matthews, Marner and Ritchie are still on the hunt for their first goal. Captain John Tavares has one. And Toronto’s much-vaunted offense stumbled, scoring an average of 2.2 goals per game (24th overall) compared to Pittsburgh’s four.
When Keefe was pressed to demote Ritchie in Friday’s game, the coach ultimately ended with a sharp point at the money makers: “You should be asking as many questions about Matthews and Marner today as you are Ritch. “
Rodrigues’ journey to this game is crazy, considering he was traded to Toronto as part of Kapanen’s 2020 trade. When the Leafs failed to offer Rodrigues a qualifying offer, the Penguins signed it in free agency.
“E-Rod is a good player. It didn’t come out of nowhere for us. We know his game very well; he’s been a good player for our team for over a season, ”said Sullivan. “He’s a bit like our Swiss Army Knife. “
“E-Rod, when you watch his game, every game he makes half a dozen plays that could potentially end up in the back of the net. “
Sullivan’s message to Rodrigues, 28, ahead of Saturday’s game was simple: don’t change your game. Take what’s given.
All the pressure will be on visitors, after all.
The Maple Leafs dresses up a rested Jack Campbell against Tristan Jarry, who is recovering from a false positive test.
That night, Toronto will be by far the most talented group on paper.
For all it’s worth.
“Sometimes I think when we have a full squad of players it’s easy to rely on the Crosby and the Malkins to do that. And maybe the bright side is that everyone in our roster tonight is going to have a positive impact on the game. That’s the mindset we need to have – because we don’t have the luxury. to defer to Malkin or Crosby, ”said Sullivan, a pretty credible motivator.
“So it’s going to be a great opportunity for us – and we have to be excited about it. We have to come into the game tonight with the idea that every individual is going to have an impact. We are going to have a positive impact. And we have to go through the boards with that thought in mind.