The Pittsburgh Penguins hope to continue to hone their game, while the Toronto Maple Leafs will look for another level when the teams begin a home-and-home set Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
The clubs meet again Thursday in Toronto.
Both teams could have fresh legs after taking Monday off.
Pittsburgh is 3-0-1 in its past four games. It might not be evident given their record — the Penguins are on pace for 112 points and are in position to challenge for the Presidents’ Trophy — but they haven’t felt fully on top of their game lately.
“I think we’re getting back to the game that has brought us success most of the year,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I still think there are areas where we’ve got to tighten up in order to be a little bit more stingy defensively and harder to play against. We’re working on those details.
“We’re playing the game hard. We just have to make sure we play the game a little smarter at critical times during the game. For the most part, I think we’re trending the right way.”
One thing that has evolved just in the past few games for the Penguins is the way they are rolling four lines. For a stretch of time before that, they were heavily a three-line club.
“To go where we want to be, we have to have all four lines going, and all three (defensive) pairs and both goalies,” said winger Patric Hornqvist, who somewhat surprisingly has been used lately on the fourth line after usually being a top-six forward during his years with Pittsburgh. Sunday, he responded with two goals in a 5-1 win against Detroit.
“When we’re all playing well, we out-change the other team and we outscore them,” Hornqvist said. “We were the better team from the drop of the puck (Sunday). That’s the way we have to be here from now on.”
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby also scored Sunday, giving him six goals and 19 points in 12 games since he returned from core muscle surgery.
Toronto is 3-4-1 in its past eight games and is looking to put some punch in its game heading into the stretch run.
“We haven’t been able to put a full 60 minutes together,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. “We need to find the sense of urgency we need to have. We have to find a way to raise our game.”
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe was more direct.
“This is the worst we’ve been in a really long time,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get the results we’re capable of getting, but seems like each game has been a little bit different in terms of what the issues are.”
Sunday, the Maple Leafs had what Keefe called “tired legs” in a 5-2 loss at Buffalo.
Tavares sees the two-game set against Pittsburgh as a good gauge for Toronto.
“It’s going to tell us a lot about our team and where we’re at,” he said. “(They are as) proven a team as there is. They are playing really good hockey, have really found their game. They have a lot of experience. They’re very driven. They play hard. It’s a crucial couple of games.”
–Field Level Media