By: Casey Shea

Familiar faces new and old helped propel the Pittsburgh Penguins to a frantic 6-5 shootout victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night.

Alex Kovalev went from hero to goat and back to hero over the course of the game. With time winding down in the first period, Ben Lovejoy made a great pass into the slot for Kovalev, who ripped a wrist shot behind James Reimer to tie the game 1-1.

In the third period and with Pittsburgh clinging to a 3-2 lead, Kovalev’s brutal turnover at the Pens’ blue line led to Clarke MacArthur’s game-tying goal.

Toronto would take the lead 35 seconds later after Kris Letang’s shot was blocked after a drop pass by Kovalev. The Maple Leafs stormed up the ice on a 3-on-1 and Joffrey Lupul beat Marc-Andre Fleury between the legs.

At this point in the game, horrible flashbacks of being at the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 14, 2009, came rushing back.

Clinging to a one-goal lead, the Penguins imploded and allowed five goals in the third period to lose 6-2. The game would prove to be the last for Michel Therrien.

Our seats were one section to the right of the Penguins’ bench, practically on the goal line 20 rows off the ice. I could see those seats last night. Some day I’ll go back to Toronto to exorcise those demons, but I digress.

Shortly after the go-ahead goal, the Penguins were called for too many men on the ice. The Leafs were being handed a golden opportunity to take complete control of the game, but the most snake-bitten Penguin came through in a big way.

max talbot 109463547 Shea ved Ice: Healthier Pens Get Big Win Over Toronto

(Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Max Talbot poked the puck away from Dion Phaneuf at the point. The puck bounced out of the zone, but Talbot easily won the race and tucked the puck between Reimer’s pads to tie the game 4-4.

I’ve said it before, but Talbot’s lack of goal-scoring has not been due to a lack of effort. He’s had numerous chances over the last couple months that just find ways to stay out of the net. His empty net goal against the New York Islanders on Feb. 2 was well-deserved, but watch his reaction after scoring with a goaltender between the pipes last night.

He looked like a kid who had never scored before. He could barely even raise his hands in the air. It’s exactly the kind of reaction you’d expect out of a guy who hadn’t beaten a goaltender since Nov. 29. That’s 37 games for those keeping track.

At this point, I’m screaming on my couch like it’s a playoff game. Later in the power play, Phaneif atoned for his mistake by firing a rocket behind Fleury to give Toronto a 5-4 lead.

You just got the feeling that the Penguins had at least one more goal left in them and Mike Rupp got it.

If you would have said that the tying goal would be scored on a wrist shot, to the far top corner, with the player falling away from the net, I never would have guessed it would be Rupp. What’s shown in the picture here is no surprise though.

mike rupp 109461372 Shea ved Ice: Healthier Pens Get Big Win Over Toronto

(Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

What a ridiculous shot by the big man and an equally huge goal.

The teams traded chances down the stretch, but both goaltenders stood tall to send the game into overtime and eventually into the shootout.

Lupul was up first and Fleury made a spectacular left toe save. Lupul could only stare in disbelief as the puck died in the crease mere inches from the line.

Kris Letang’s wrister was stopped by Reimer and Fleury forced Phil Kessel to shoot wide.

Enter Kovalev. He moved in straight down the slot in a deliberate way before rifling a wrist shot off the crossbar and in. There was nothing fancy about it, but it was an incredible shot nonetheless.

Fleury then slammed the door on Mikhail Grabovski to seal the win and give the Penguins a huge second point in the standings.

Mark Letestu returned to the lineup Saturday after suffering a knee injury at the end of January. It didn’t take long for him to get back in the groove either. His power play goal in the second period tied the game at two.

penguins goal 109461387 Shea ved Ice: Healthier Pens Get Big Win Over Toronto

(Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Dustin Jeffrey returned to the lineup Friday night against Carolina and put the Penguins up 3-2 with 14 seconds left in the second period.

Let’s recap a little shall we?

The Penguins are still missing, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Mike Comrie, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Arron Asham, Eric Tangradi, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy and Nick Johnson.

Now, Martin and Kunitz are close to returning and we don’t know the severity of Kennedy’s lower-body injury sustained at some point yesterday.

However, in the last week the Penguins have added James Neal, Matt Niskanen and Kovalev via trades and have gotten Jeffrey and Letestu back.

This one game may have given us some insight into what they are capable of. Prior to last night’s explosion of goals, the Penguins hadn’t managed to light the lamp more than three times in a game since Jan. 18 against the Red Wings.

It’s hard enough finding consistent goal-scoring in the NHL without having to deal with finding warm bodies to suit up every night.

Some people will say that injuries are just an excuse and such, but I beg to differ. Take 11 guys, including the two biggest stars, off any NHL roster and watch what happens.

If you think the team won’t suffer greatly, you need to get your head checked.

Despite allowing five goals last night, Fleury slammed the door when he needed to. With the game on the line, the Flower came up huge and gave his team a chance to win. He’s certainly turned this into a remarkable season for himself, considering how October went.

With every player that comes back to the lineup, the Penguins get a little better. With every game that the new acquisitions play, they learn the system a little more. Can this team make a serious run at the Stanley Cup without Crosby and Malkin? I’m not so sure. Can they compete with any team in the Eastern Conference only down those two guys? Absolutely.

This was what I called Measuring Stick Week. While they only went 1-2-2 in those games, they played well in all of them.

  • The depleted Penguins held the high-octane offenses of Washington, Chicago and San Jose to only six goals combined.
  • Friday’s effort against Carolina left something to be desired on defense, but they controlled most of the game in the offensive zone.
  • They showed some great resilience in the face of adversity against Toronto last night.

The Penguins still boast the league’s top penalty killing unit and have allowed the seventh fewest goals this season. That number will change because the Penguins have played more games than the six teams ahead of them on that list, but the point is that the defense and goaltending have been fantastic this season.

You don’t need to score five goals a game when you’re allowing less than three. While the offense takes a huge hit without Crosby and Malkin, they aren’t the only guys who put the puck in the back of the net.

If the defense and Fleury continue to play well, there’s enough offense on this roster to score goals when they’re healthy.

There’s only 18 games left in the regular season and the schedule makers were very kind to the Penguins. They only play 14 games in March and their final four games in April are spread out over 10 days.

That boils down to more time for the injured players to recover without missing games. If they get healthy and Crosby were able to return, this could be a very fresh squad heading into the playoffs.

Of course, the key word in that last statement is “if.”

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