Leafs disappoint Pens

By DavidVanDeveer
Dec. 31, 2015

Penguins struggled against Maple Leafs
Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night marked the last home game for the Penguins in 2015. The last few weeks have been turbulent with the firing of former Head Coach Mike Johnston and the hiring of Mike Sullivan. Sullivan's first week at the helm did not go as he would have hoped with the Penguins losing their first 5 games under the Sullivan era. The Penguins looked like they were going to recover before the Christmas break with a win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Christmas break did some good for the Penguins when they came back and beat the Minnesota Wild 3-1. The season was starting to look up for the Penguins with two wins in a row, then they played Winnipeg.

The Penguins went into Winnipeg without Marc-Andre Fleury due to his concussion and Kris Letang was knocked out to due an elbow he took to the head in Minnesota the night before. Winnipeg was a physical test for the Penguins and they ultimately lost 1-0. Tonight was the last home game of the 2015 campaign and hopefully the turning point for the Penguins.

An electric atmosphere filled the Consol Energy Center Wednesday night as the Penguins took the ice to turn around their misfortune. The Leafs would prove to be a tough test for the Penguins. You could tell last night's game was going to be a battle early in the first period when Evgeni Malkin and Dion Phaneuf started hacking at one another. Before you knew it, Kris Letang was victimized yet again with a vicious hit from behind by Leo Komarov. Letang had to leave the game to go through concussion protocol for the second time in less than a week. Fortunately, Letang was able to return to the game. It appeared as if Komarov was going to get a 5 minute major for the hit because one of the officials was escorting him to the bench to be taken to the locker room with a little over four minutes left in the first, but then he went to the box to serve a two minute penalty. When Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was asked if he was given an explanation he said, Once Komarov was released from the sin bin Penguins defenseman Ian Cole went after him with a few cross checks in an attempt to get Komarov to fight, but no such fight occurred. Cole realized he needed to stand up for his number one defenseman and try to avenge Letang. When teams begin to target players who have a history of injuries then the penalties need to be harsher. If the NHL wants to take the hits from behind and shots to the head out of the game then those penalties need to be at least double minors, if not an automatic 5 minute major.

After the Maple Leafs suffered a 6-3 blow out loss Tuesday to the Islanders you could see the giant chip on their shoulders last night. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier was pummeled in Tuesday's game and was not expected to start in Pittsburgh. However, Reimer could not go due to tightness in his back so Bernier got the nod to start against the Penguins. Bernier was shaky Tuesday night but it appeared he exorcised his demons prior to last night's contest because he looked good in net by stopping 39 of 41 shots. When Chris Kunitz tied the game for the Penguins on the powerplay in the first period it looked like the Penguins would surge and beat the Leafs. Sidney Crosby managed to score in the second period to tie it yet again to make the score 2-2. With Crosby scoring twice in two games shows improvement and positive signs for the Penguins but there are still areas which need to be improved.

The Penguins had 5 power play opportunities last night but managed to only score once. The man advantage has clearly been a weak point in the Penguins game for the majority of the season because they look for the perfect play, are unable to possess the puck in the offensive zone, and they refuse to shoot the puck on net to get the dirty goal. Phil Kessel was a surprise addition to the Penguins roster and the hope was he would consistently help put points on the board but he manages to consistently miss the net high and wide when given the opportunity to shoot, not the traits of a NHL sniper you are looking for. Evidence of the Penguins ineptitude on the power play was shown when they gave up four short handed opportunities in the third period to the Maple Leafs due to turnovers. If it was not for the brilliant play by goaltender Matt Murray the Penguins would have been out of the game by the end of the first. The Penguins were lucky to squeak by with a point against one of the league's worse teams by making it to overtime but it was counted as a failure by forward Chris Kunitz.  The Penguins lost 3-2 in the shootout. It was a heart breaking way to see the last home game of the year end.

As of right now the Penguins are on the outside looking in at the 2016 post season being 5 points behind the New Jersey Devils for the second wild card spot. If the Penguins want to make the playoffs this year they have to figure out their powerplay issues. A man advantage is a precious resource in the NHL and should not be wasted by allowing the opposing team four short handed chances. Mike Sullivan mixed up the lines for his first two wins as the Penguins head coach so he may have to go back to that strategy to be effective against the Red Wings tonight in Detroit. Jeff Zatkoff will most likely start in goal for the Penguins and his play has been stunning this season. It is the last game of 2015 and the Penguins need to put 2015 as far behind them as possible by going into 2016 with a win.