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Maple Leafs fail in revenge bid: ‘The Pittsburgh Penguins were an issue’

TORONTO – T.J. Brodie needed no reminding what happened last time the Toronto Maple Leafs ran into the Pittsburgh Penguins. Which was a lot like running into a woodchipper.

Despite dressing a lineup scattered with farm hands and afterthoughts, the Penguins thrashed the then-reeling Maple Leafs 7-1 four Saturdays ago.

A wakeup call of the ugliest sort.

“You never really forget those games,” Brodie said. “We’re a different team now. Playing a lot better. And we know what we’re capable of.”

Indeed, they are.

The Leafs stepped into the rematch boasting top-five rankings leaguewide in goals allowed as well as power-play and penalty-kill success. They have more home wins than the Wright Sisters and are racing for tops in the Atlantic Division.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” coach Sheldon Keefe agreed. “As it turns out, that’s part of our journey to get here. We had to go through something like that. But we feel like we’re in a better place here now.”

Saturday, facing a healthier version of the Pens, presented the Leafs an opportunity to prove it. To un-barrass themselves.

Well, Jack Campbell was his usual stellar self, but the Maple Leafs deservedly came out on the losing side again.

Pittsburgh — a .500 club desperate for points — was the more determined and opportunistic team in a smart and peppy 2-0 road victory, quieting Toronto’s top shooters for the second time this fall.

“You look at the goals they scored, very similar in nature to what we gave up [in Pittsburgh]. Handling their speed through the neutral zone was a problem for us there; it was a problem again for us tonight,” Keefe said. “

Then they just defend real hard and make it tough on you. We got what we deserved in terms of our offence.”

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Matching top lines to start with Sidney Crosby and Auston Matthews at centre ice (a Beijing preview?), Pittsburgh picked right up where these two clubs left off.

After Crosby’s winger, Jake Guentzel, drew first blood, Keefe would occasionally stray from the strength-on-strength matchup to give his stars better looks.

But Mike Sullivan’s game plan and his players’ execution of it was tack sharp.

Alas, it was the Penguins’ speed that burned Toronto’s shutdown pair, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl, at both ends. Pittsburgh doubled its lead in the first frame with a well-executed Jeff Carter strike off the rush.

Pittsburgh didn’t need a touchdown this time around, locking things down enough to take the crowd and the Leafs’ offence from making much noise outside of a few clanged crossbars.

The visitors even killed off a nail-biting, 109-second 5-on-3 power-play for Toronto late in the third.

“Just like we lost to a good team, we lost to a good penalty kill. They were just flat-out better than us,” Keefe said.

“I didn’t think the lines were an issue; the Pittsburgh Penguins were an issue. I can’t control that.”

Goaltender Tristan Jarry was excellent in recording a 26-save shutout, but Pittsburgh’s defenders made it treacherous to even reach his crease.

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“They just play a hard and fast game,” Keefe said. “If you don’t match that, they can make you look real bad.”

The Maple Leafs hopped a charter to New York after the loss and will have an immediate chance to right their wrongs in the Islanders’ brand-new home, UBS Arena, Sunday night.

“This game’s over with,” Mitch Marner said. “Can’t dwell on this too long, or else it’s going to go into tomorrow night’s game.”

Rookie call-up Joseph Woll will be given his second-ever start in net as both teams battle through the sleepy half of a back-to-back.

“We do have a tough road trip ahead,” Keefe warned. “So, this one here certainly gets everybody’s attention.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Saturday marked the two-year anniversary of Keefe’s hiring as Maple Leafs head coach. The NHL’s youngest active bench boss (74-35-13) considered what the job means to him:

“It’s a privilege to coach the Leafs. I feel good coming here and working every day knowing how passionate people are and how much people care about what you’re doing. I’ve had that at various levels, and it’s relative. This is on a whole other planet.

“I enjoy the challenge of it. Enjoy working every day to figure out how we can make our team better and how we can get to the highest level that matters the most. In these regular seasons, the pace of the schedule is just tough. It comes fast. But it’s all part of the journey that you’ve come to love and appreciate.”

• No video tribute for Kasperi Kapanen in his return to Toronto.

“In my experience coaching players when they come back to a city where they played in the past, there’s always a certain added emotion to it. Kappy will be no different,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said this morning.

“Kappy’s a real good kid. He’s hard on himself, so we try to help him manage his emotions through some of the ebbs and flows of the season. But he’s been a very good player for us.”

• Leafs backup Petr Mrazek skated Saturday morning for the first time since reaggravating his groin in late October. Sounds like he’s still at least a week away. (Injured goalie prospect Ian Scott’s return to the Marlies, however, is imminent.)

• Penguins president Brian Burke: “We’re never going to be the same team until we get Geno Malkin back.”

• How ’bout this Josh Ho-Sang kid?

Signed to an AHL-only contract, Ho-Sang leads the Marlies in goals (eight), points (12), game-winners (three), and shootout goals (2/2).

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